Communism as a political and economic ideology dominated the 20th century. In one way or another, it has affected nearly every nation and institution in the world—and it persists in some nations today. Communism claims that a materially abundant and peaceful world can be created by abolishing private property and allowing the collectivity, through the mediation of the state, to plan and direct all aspects of society along scientific and rational lines. It is a utopian idea that sacrifices individualism for the collective good. Ideologically, it is the antithesis of individualism and laissez‐​faire economics. During the preceding century, communist regimes arose in Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere, capturing nearly one half of the world’s population and landmass. Intellectually, communism also captured many of the hearts and minds of intellectuals worldwide. In human terms, more than 100 million people died as a result of communism. Communists still rule North Korea, Cuba, and a few other states, impoverishing millions of people. But indications suggest that these totalitarian states are dying or morphing into more liberal, capitalist nations.

Communism’s philosophical roots can be traced to Plato. But for all practical purposes, the first detailed analysis of modern communism was offered by the German intellectuals Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). They presented their plan to the world in 1848, with the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Whereas Marx and Engels preferred the term socialist for the society toward which mankind was inevitably moving, they felt forced to use the term communist to distinguish themselves from the numerous utopian socialist theories that were then circulating and to underscore what they regarded as the scientific basis of communist philosophy.

The authors argued that all history was the history of class struggle, a struggle between those who owned the means of production and those who did not. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebe, lord and serf, guild‐​master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed,” as they put it. Borrowing from Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Hegel’s dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels viewed this conflict as inevitable and integral to nature. Man and the social forces in which he found himself were progressing over time. By the 19th century, this struggle had evolved to its highest stage: a struggle between the bourgeoisie, who controlled society’s productive facilities, and workers, who were exploited in the interests of the owning class.

Marx and Engels argued that workers, the proletariat, should unite and, with the communists as their vanguard, overthrow the capitalists and institute a socialist society, the end point to which all history led. In this new society, devoid of religion and other “false ideas,” a new man—a selfless man—would emerge. As materialists, Marx and Engels believed that this new world would engineer a new humanity. No one would be oppressed, and, hence, there would be no more conflict. The State would ultimately wither away.

Sixty‐​nine years after Marx and Engels laid out their plan, Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) and the Bolshevik Party attempted to put a version of Marx’s theory into effect in Russia. In 1916–1917, Russia experienced extreme political, economic, and social turmoil primarily because of its involvement in World War I and the inept leadership of Tsar Nicholas II. Finally, agitation between liberal democratic and socialist groups put an end to the regime in February 1917. Pressed by his military advisors, the tsar abdicated power and the Provisional Government was established, first under a liberal and then a social democratic prime minister. In November 1917, Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who headed the more radical wing of the Communist Party, seized control of Moscow and thereby effectively took control over the nation. A one‐​party dictatorship, led by Lenin, was established, and he and the communists quickly moved to nationalize all industry and build the new socialist nation based on the centralization of the economy.

Lenin and his aides issued streams of orders to eradicate all vestiges of the previous regime and construct their new world. Countless revolutionary tribunals were established, as was the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, to enforce Moscow’s dictates. As a result, bureaucracies and the entire state apparatus mushroomed. All public institutions, decrees, and laws were crafted to serve the state, the party, and the revolution. The courts and the laws changed to reflect the desires of the Party and particularly of its leader. In effect, individualism and individual rights were crushed. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1991, under communism, “the state [is] everything and the individual nothing.” All rights, in practice, belonged to the state and the Communist Party. Everyone was coerced into serving the state. At the same time, the millions of people running the government constantly maneuvered to protect their own interests.

Part of the overall plan was to harness Russia’s economic and political strength to foster communist revolutions abroad, particularly in industrialized Europe. But the scope of the plan—managing the world’s fifth largest economy and largest landmass—and the impossibility of setting prices by committee proved the scheme’s undoing. In communist Russia, as in other communist nations, the state owned and operated the means of production. By the early 1930s, large‐​scale private property did not exist. Farmers, for instance, no longer owned the land they farmed, and the price of the produce they sold was not set by the market, by supply and demand, but was “calculated” by a committee that oversaw farm production. However, in the absence of any means to calculate the costs of production, these committees had no real way to calculate what, for instance, a bushel of corn was worth.

It is impossible to determine the value of all the human actions involved in producing or buying anything in the absence of some price mechanism. Only when consumers and producers are involved in uncoerced exchanges can one arrive at a viable price, the result of the interaction between demand for a good or service and its supply. Yet Lenin and Joseph Stalin, his successor, thought they could do just that for an entire country and for every product and service. “Socialism is one of the most ambitious creations of the human spirit,” said laissez‐​faire economist, Ludwig von Mises, but “socialism lacks the ability to calculate [prices] and therefore to proceed rationally.” Without private ownership of production, said Mises, “there could be no rational allocation of resources in the economy.”

The economic system that dominated communist Russia lacked any sense. Because the committees empowered to set prices had no way of knowing the value of any good or service, they were unable to tell industries and workers which good to produce and how much of it, which led to countless miscalculations. Investment made no sense, nor did production or distribution. Quotas were established whose real purpose was to make the committees and the state look good. As a result, factories produced large numbers of things that people didn’t want—5,000 left‐​footed shoes, and so on. In addition, the economy was plagued by never‐​ending shortages. More dramatically, the collectivization of the farms led to widespread famine in the 1920s and 1930s in which millions died.

These continual failures, caused by the government’s irrational economic policies, were blamed on everyone and everything except the real culprits. As a result, arrests ballooned. A vast network of slave labor/​concentration camps was built, launched by Lenin and expanded by Stalin. People were worked to death or starved in these camps while large numbers of inmates were executed. Centralized “planning” and quotas were applied to arrests, interrogations, and executions.

Following Joseph Stalin’s seizure of power on Lenin’s death in 1928, Stalin established several “5‐​year plans” to boost production of capital goods and armaments. As a result, “living standards declined precipitously because financing the industrialization drive called for reducing wages to a minimum,” as Richard Pipes reported in his Communism: A History. “In 1933, workers’ real earnings sank to about one tenth of what they had been on the eve of the industrial drive (1926–1927). According to Alec Nove, a specialist on the Soviet economy, “1933 was the culmination of the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standards known in recorded history.”

In the early 1930s, Stalin also sought to industrialize the countryside through widespread collectivization of agriculture. “By this was meant that the peasants would supply food for the industrial labor force, cities, and armed forces at rock‐​bottom prices,” says Pipes. This process led to more shortages and state recrimination. In addition, Stalin was able to use the policy to eliminate his personal enemies and entire classes of people he viewed as enemies of the state.

About the only industries in which Soviet Russia was to excel during its 70‐​year history were in the production of armaments, especially nuclear weapons, in space exploration, and in crude oil production. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the first nation to launch a rocket that successfully orbited the moon. The Russian T-34 tank was the top in its class for many years. The Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle still sells well and is used by the armies of at least 50 nations.

Recent research by Richard Pipes at Harvard University and R. C. Raack shows that the Soviets encouraged Nazi success in Germany and were not averse to a war between Germany and the Western allies in 1939. Further, the Soviet Union, together with China and other communist nations, fomented numerous revolts in the 20th century, including those in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

Soviet Russia’s intervention in Third World countries, its costs in occupying Eastern Europe for 46 years, and its massive military spending all contributed to the regime’s downfall. Largely because of its bureaucracy and inefficiency—and its failure in allowing free markets to set prices—the U.S.S.R. could not keep up with the more competitive and efficient West. The communist system in Russia collapsed in 1991 and is still in the process of recovering from its 70‐​year nightmare.

Soviet‐​style economic policies were implemented in China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and other communist nations and produced similarly dismal results. Mao Zedong, the communist leader of China, was successful in taking over the whole of China in 1949, following nearly 20 years of bloody insurgency that left 4 million dead. Like Lenin, Mao established a one‐​party dictatorship and sought to industrialize and communize an entire nation through the abolition of private property, the collectivization of agriculture, and a series of 5‐​year plans aimed at industrialization. As in Russia, these policies produced periodic shortages and several widespread famines. More than 20 million people died in the worst of these famines, during the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958–1960. As in the Soviet Union, a secret police force was established and an extensive system of prisons and concentration camps—the laogai—was erected. Mao, like Lenin and Stalin, periodically purged his alleged enemies, as happened, for example, during the Cultural Revolution (1964–1975), when nearly 8 million people were killed.

After Mao’s death, less‐​militant leaders took over. In the last 25 years, China has introduced a series of promarket policies and tolerated an extensive black market that greatly benefited Chinese consumers. Expanded trade with the West has helped weaken communist rule, but there is a long way to go, as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre showed. Also, despite economic liberalization, the Chinese communists have killed an estimated 1 million people for political reasons since 1976. The laogai prison system still operates today with about 1,000 camps.

Under communist regimes, the arts (and education) suffered fates similar to that which befell the rest of society. Arts committees, for instance, were established in Soviet Russia and other communist states, staffed by bureaucrats charged with overseeing and directing the production of books, periodicals, paintings, architecture, dance, and music. Communist “planned” art was supposedly to serve the interests of the state and, in most cases, glorify its Communist Party leaders. These arts elevated Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim Il‐​sung, and Marx and Engels, among others, to the level of secular deities.

The following is a list of communist regimes and their longevity:

U.S.S.R. (Russia) 1917–1991

China 1949–present

Eastern Europe (satellites of the U.S.S.R.)

Poland 1945–1990

East Germany 1949–1990

Hungary 1948–1989

Czechoslovakia 1948–1989

Romania 1947–1989

Yugoslavia 1946–1990

Albania 1944–1991

Bulgaria 1946–1990

North Korea 1948–present

Cuba 1959–present

North Vietnam 1954–1976

Vietnam 1976–present

Laos 1975–present

Cambodia 1975–1993

Ethiopia 1975–1991

Angola 1976–1993

Mozambique 1974–1994

Nicaragua 1979–1990

Afghanistan 1978–1992

Communism promised to liberate man and create a utopia on earth, where men would become as gods. Through the application of science and reason, man would conquer nature and create endless abundance. But in this “scientific” drive toward the point where history and class struggle end, the individual was viewed as mere matter— capital—to further the interests of the group, the state. The individual person was regarded as no more than “an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual [was] completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio‐​economic mechanism,” said Pope John Paul II, who spent much of his life battling communism in Poland. “[T]he concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decisions disappear[ed].” As a result, people were thrown into the threshing machine of communist policy and killed by the millions—more than 100 million victims worldwide.

Lenin, Stalin, and Mao actually set execution quotas. They would decree that perhaps 5% of the people were counterrevolutionaries, so 5% percent of the population was ordered killed, people from all walks of life, wrote political science Professor Rudolph J. Rummel, a leading authority on government killings. Rummel estimates that the number of people killed worldwide because of communism is 110 million. Conservative estimates of the number of people killed because of communism, as provided in the highly acclaimed Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press), are:

U.S.S.R.: 20 million

China: 65 million

Vietnam: 1 million

North Korea: 2 million

Cambodia: 2 million

Eastern Europe: 1 million

Latin America: 150,000

Africa: 1.7 million

Afghanistan: 1.5 million

TOTAL: 94.3 million

Communism, despite its pretensions about science, materialism, and rationalism, functions like a religion—a secular faith. Despite the economic success of capitalism and political and economic freedom that has accompanied it in Europe and the United States, Marx denied these successes, and Lenin sought to explain them away. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and their intellectual supporters constructed an elaborate fantasy—a false idea that captured the emotions and then the minds of many people. Hatred of capital was a cause that provided for many a faith to believe in and fight for.

Communism, as a quasi‐​religion, promised man abundance and happiness. It had its saints, such as Marx, Lenin, and Mao. It had its Bible, the Communist Manifesto. It had its commandments, its theology, handed down by the Communist Party. It had its sacrifices on the altar of the state—all crafted to create a heaven on earth. In reality, Marx’s philosophy has managed to create a hell on earth, its mass graves and gulags its legacy.

Further Readings

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Courtois, Stephane, Nicolas Werth, Jean‐​Louis Panné, and Andrzej Paczkowski. The Black Book of Communism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Kowlakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Lenin, Vladimir I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. New York: International Publishers, 1969.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Signet Classics, 1998.

Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981.

Nove, Alec. An Economic History of the U.S.S.R. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Pipes, Richard. Communism, a History. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Gulag Archipelago. 3 vols. New York: HarperCollins, 1991–1992.

Volkogonov, Dmitrii. Lenin: A New Biography. New York: Free Press/​Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Originally published