Communism is the political and economic doctrine that aims to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of at least the major means of production (e.g., mines, mills, and factories) and the natural resources of a society. Communism is thus a form of socialism — a higher and more advanced form, according to its advocates. Exactly how communism differs from socialism has long been a matter of debate, but the distinction rests largely on the communists’ adherence to the revolutionary socialism of Karl Marx.
Like most writers of the 19th century, Marx tended to use the terms communism and socialism interchangeably. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), however, Marx identified two phases of communism that would follow the predicted overthrow of capitalism: the first would be a transitional system in which the working class would control the government and economy yet still find it necessary to pay people according to how long, hard, or well they worked; the second would be fully realized communism—a society without class divisions or government, in which the production and distribution of goods would be based upon the principle "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Marx’s followers, especially the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Lenin, took up this distinction.
In State and Revolution (1917), Lenin asserted that socialism corresponds to Marx’s first phase of communist society and communism proper to the second. Lenin and the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party reinforced this distinction in 1918, the year after they seized power in Russia, by taking the name All-Russian Communist Party. Since then, communism has been largely, if not exclusively, identified with the form of political and economic organization developed in the Soviet Union and adopted subsequently in the People’s Republic of China and other countries ruled by communist parties.
For much of the 20th century, in fact, about one-third of the world’s population lived under communist regimes. These regimes were characterized by the rule of a single party that tolerated no opposition and little dissent. In place of a capitalist economy, in which individuals compete for profits, moreover, party leaders established a command economy in which the state controlled property and its bureaucrats determined wages, prices, and production goals. The inefficiency of these economies played a large part in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the remaining communist countries (excepting North Korea) are now allowing greater economic competition while holding fast to one-party rule. Whether they will succeed in this endeavour remains to be seen. Succeed or fail, however, communism is clearly not the world-shaking force it was in the 20th century.
The Soviet model
Traditionally, the main principles of socialism involved a commitment to equality, social justice, freedom, new opportunities for the poor, widening choice, respect for the individual and extending democracy. The Soviet model paid no more than lip service to any of these ideals. Soviet communism was not a classless society. Theoretically, under Marxism-Leninism, the working class was supposed to be dominant. The proletariat was the dynamic force that drove history, the textbooks said. The workers operated through a 'vanguard' - the Communist party.
In practice, the leaders of the Communist Party sat at the top and did not trust the workers below. Leninists believed that the working class did not know what was in their best interest - they might, after all, if given the choice, allow the bourgeoisie to rule. So the Party would decide what was good for them.
The basis of Soviet communism was the system known as nomenklatura, which is how the Party maintained its power. It was an elaborate network of political patronage. Its result was that every important job in the country was held by a member of the Communist Party. Centrally and locally, a series of lists were maintained of all the positions that required Party membership - and of the people fit to hold them. This did not apply only to the top government and economic positions but in every field: judges, head teachers at big schools, managers of football clubs, the fire service bosses, senior army and police officers, newspaper editors, hospital administrators, college lecturers, theater and concert hall directors. The lists were enormous - in Czechoslovakia, a country of about nine million people, there were something like 450.000 nomenklatura jobs in every conceivable walk of life. Politics became paramount.
The Party enforced rigid hierarchical discipline on members rather like the army. The high ranks formed a closed elite, a self-perpetuating oligarchy. They had monopoly power and sole access to the fixed list of the to jobs. They rewarded themselves handsomely - luxurious houses, domestic staff, cars, the best medical care. They could travel occasionally to the West. They had access to a range of goods denied to others, from foodstuffs to furniture, at special shops where they paid with hard currency to which only they had access. Their children enjoyed all the class privileges of background and a relatively high standard of living. They went to the best schools and universities; they had far better job opportunities than the children of average workers. The children of the nomenklatura did very well - as long as they were obedient and faithful. The privileges depended on loyalty to the Party. One false step politically, and the job,the car, the nanny, the maidservant and cook, the children's university education, could all disappear overnight. Every rung of the Party ladder was formally required to execute the orders of the rung above, on the absolute Communist golden rule called, with no hint of irony, democratic centralism.
Unlike most religions, which offered rewards in heaven to come, communism promised earthly relief from miseries here and now. It was not delivering.
The Soviet model was rigid. It was directed for political rather than economic ends, according to a centrally calculated Plan that bore no relation to the market. Prices and wages quickly turned out to be unrealistic, but no matter. They couldn't be changed because they were in the Plan, approved by the bureaucrats in the Party. It led to absurdities big and small. For example, there were no hairpins made in Poland throughout most of the 1970s. The Plan had of course been produced by men and no mention in it anywhere was made of hairpins, so there were none produced.
For a couple of decades communism managed to provide the basics in most parts of Eastern Europe, though in some places only just. But even the showplace countries were never effective at providing consumer goods, which as time went on was what people wanted. From the mid-1960s the gap with the West began to widen, then grew further rapidly. From the start, the new Communist rulers made catastrophic mistakes. The worst was to try to turn light industrial and agricultural economies almost overnight into 'nations or iron and steel'. They did so because that is what Stalin had done in the USSR and the Soviet experience was dogma in all things. The obsession with heavy industry lasted throughout the Communist years. For most of them, the value of the natural resources mined and exported was considerably more than the finished goods produced in East European factories. Many manufactured products were made at a phenomenal loss.
Marxists argued that the absence of private property would abolish corruption. The opposite happened. In economies dominated by shortage, the only way to obtain a vast range of basic goods was through connections. A sophisticated system of barter and favors operated. If a doctor's family needed the fridge repaired an electrician, moonlighting almost certainly illegally from his normal work, would do the job in return for, say, a hospital appointment. A new part was needed for the fridge and there was only once place that could come from.
Theft from workplace was common. An acute observer who knew many of the East European Part leaders thought that one of the worst aspects of communism was a new amorality. 'Many people believed embezzling from the state, from big frauds to petty larceny, was OK. It was argued it was even a way of fighting back, of resistance.'
- Communism at Wikipedia
- Communism by Bryan Caplan at The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
- The Death Camp of Communist China by Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., July 2007
- Why do people vote for Communists? by Luca Ferrini, June 2005
- The Black Book by Ralph Reiland, December 1999
- War Communism to NEP: The Road from Serfdom (pdf) by Sheldon L. Richman, 1981
- The Myth of Monolithic Communism by Murray N. Rothbard, 1979
- The Death Wish of the Anarcho-Communists by Murray N. Rothbard, 1970