What is communism? Definition and examples
Communism: This article explains communism in a practical way. The article contains the meaning and definition of communism, the difference between socialism and communism and the reasons why communist societies have developed and still develop. You will also read about the criticism on this system and examples of real life scenarios. Enjoy reading!
What is communism?
Communism is a socio-economic, philosophical, political and social ideology with the aim of establishing a communist society. A communist society is a society structured on the ideas of common ownership of means of production. That means that the state owns all means of production and resources in the absence of social classes and private wealth.
In other words, communism is a system in which private property does not exist or is severely restricted. It is therefore not or hardly possible to make a profit in an economic system such as that used in the Western world.
Meaning of Communism
The word communism is derived from French and Latin. ‘Communis’ can be translated as ‘of or for the community’ and ‘ism’ is a suffix that indicates a state, condition, or action.
Communism can therefore be described as: the state of being of or for the community. This semantic constitution of the word has led to a multiplicity of uses and meanings.
Before being associated with political and economic organization, the word was used to denote various social situations. In a political and economic sense, the concept was popularized by Karl Marx in his vision: Marxism. In The Communist Manifesto, he proposed a certain type of communism. More on this later.
Socialism vs. Communism
Communism is thus a form of socialism. How the two differ from each other has long been a matter of debate. The distinction, for the most part, comprises proponents’ adherence to Karl Marx’s revolutionary vision.
Both are economic philosophies that advocate collective ownership rather than private ownership. This mainly concerns the means of production and distribution / exchange of goods.
Both have the main goal of solving the problems caused by the capitalist system in the free market. Socialists and communists are mainly concerned with the exploitation of workers and the gap between rich and poor, which would be widening.
These are fundamental similarities. However, the two systems also have some important differences.
Under communism it is not possible to have private property. All property is communal property and each person gets what he or she needs. A highly controlling government provides all citizens with basic needs. This includes food, housing, education and medical care.
Under socialism people can still own property. However, the main means of production and resources are jointly owned and administered by a democratically elected government. It is the possession of these means of production with which great wealth can be accumulated. Socialists don’t like this.
Another important difference between socialism and communism is the way in which the two idealistic societies are actually to be achieved. Communism mainly uses a violent revolution in which workers revolt against the middle and upper classes in society. Socialism is less violent and more flexible.
Supporters of socialism strive for change, reform and perhaps even a revolution, but insist on implementing these changes democratically. The most common type of modern socialists, Social Democrats, focus on achieving social reform and redistribution of wealth through democratic instruments and could coexist with a capitalist, western free-market economy.
Karl Marx believed that capitalism led to inequality and discontent among citizens. His goal was to develop a new system in which a society without classes would emerge. Everyone would then be able to enjoy the benefits of labor and production, without people striving to rise above others.
No one would be motivated by greed anymore and the gap between rich and poor would be closed. Workers would no longer be exploited and the poor would be freed from oppression.
Communism was not invented by Karl Marx, as indicated earlier. Plato and Aristotle already discussed these forms of societies, but Karl Marx developed his own view into a popular and idealistic doctrine.
Karl Marx believed that private ownership of goods fostered greed. He blamed capitalism for the problems in society. These problems would have arisen as a result of the industrial revolution that had taken place.
This revolution gave rise to factories and machines, which meant the ability to mass-produce, often in conditions of poverty and oppression. It encouraged, Marx wrote, the emergence of the proletariat, or working class.
Before capitalism emerged, certain working classes owned the means of production and instruments. This is the root of Marxism: the most important characteristic of economic systems throughout history is the mode of production. Change in this mode of production would be the result of class struggle.
As indicated, according to this materialist view, the industrial revolution led to the rise of capitalism. As machines were much more efficient and better, working class property became partially worthless. They could only survive by selling their labor and put it at the service of machines of others.
As a result, two classes arose in the world: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These classes are the direct opposite of each other. The bourgeoisie owns the means of production used by the proletariat. They make a profit for the bourgeoisie and own nothing else when it comes to means of production.
Dictatorship and Communist Terror
A prerequisite for the inception and development of a communist society is the confiscation of private property belonging to the ‘exploitative classes’. History shows that this is only possible through deportation, oppression, imprisonment, murder and physical destruction. In the twentieth century, tens of millions of people became victims of these practices.
Estimates of the figures for people who have had to give their lives for the sake of communist ideology vary widely. Estimates at least take into account executions, deaths from system starvation, deaths from forced labor, deportations and imprisonment.
The countries responsible for the largest share of these crime rates are: the former Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Democratic Kampuchea, present-day Cambodia.
In the Soviet Union, most crimes took place during the Stalinist period from 1927 to 1953. This period includes the famine of Holomodor and the Great Purge.
In China, most crimes took place under Mao Zedong’s rule between 1949 and 1976. The total number of deaths varies between several tens of millions.
To what extent these crimes were the result of leaders, political systems or communism is still a matter of debate. What is beyond dispute is that during these times tens of millions of people were murdered under various communist regimes.
Has communism failed?
Researchers have conducted extensive research into the reasons why communism as described in Karl Marx’s view has failed so often.
The first of these is the lack, or rather deprivation of incentives for citizens to engage in profit and self-interest. Such an incentive or motivation leads to innovation and competition in society, i.e. progress. The ideal citizen, according to the communist model, is a selfless person who rarely thinks about his or her own well-being.
A second possible reason for the failure of communism in its pure form is the concentration of power. This is wholly or almost wholly in the hands of a select few. This also leads to inefficiency, but moreover, paradoxically, it is also the reason that people from that group regulate the system in such a way that it benefits themselves. Corruption and laziness became features of governance in communist states.
In short, communism discourages hardworking citizens from getting involved. The end result is a weak economy that suffers severely under the strict regime.
Criticism of communist states
The actions of communist governments are met with much resistance worldwide. Common criticisms include that communism leads to totalitarian rule of communist parties, repression, restriction of human rights and poor economic performance.
This criticism comes mainly from anti-communists and right-wing politicians, but also communists themselves, socialists and Marxists have no choice but to criticize historical achievements of communist states.
It is clear that communist states have an authoritarian policy. The suppression or killing and elimination of political opponents and social classes is not uncommon.
Communism in summary
Communism as a socio-economic system can be summarized in the following key features, derived from The Communist Manifesto.
- Abolition of private property (expropriation of land, etc.) and the application of rent for public purposes
- An extremely progressive income tax
- Abolition of inheritance law
- Free education for everyone
- Equal liability of all for labor
- Centralization of credit
- Control of communication and transport
- Abolition of the distinction between rural and urban
- Confiscation of property of all immigrants and rebels
Now It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about communism? What differences or similarities do you see with other socio-economic systems and perspectives? Do you think some elements from The Communist Manifesto are applicable in our Western societies? Which socio-economic system do you prefer? Do you have any tips or comments?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Douzinas, C., & Žižek, S. (2010). The idea of communism.
- Townsend, J. R. (1967). Political participation in communist China (Vol. 1). University of California Press.
- Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2012). The communist manifesto. Yale University Press.
- Marx, K. (2018). Alienation and social classes (pp. 127-131). Routledge.
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Published on: 02/17/2022 | Last update: 02/01/2023
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