Communism: Definition & Examples

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  • 1:19 Early Forms
  • 2:25 Marxist
  • 4:27 Marxist-Leninist
  • 5:42 Maoist
  • 7:08 Cold War
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

In this lesson, we'll learn the meaning of communism while briefly comparing it to capitalism. We'll then discuss different examples of communism. Finally, we'll discuss the significance of communism in the context of the Cold War.

Defining Communism

Visualize a world where everyone has equal amounts of wealth. Everyone has equal amounts of land, equal-sized houses, the same government-issued cars, the same government-issued stoves, the same government-issued cell phones, etc. Although people do different jobs, they all get paid the same. Since everyone is equal, there are no social classes. In fact, there isn't even a need for money. People do not need to fight because all materials are shared in common through the government. Everyone works according to their ability, and everyone receives according to their need. Sounds too good to be true, huh?

The world portrayed here is a communist society. In simple terms, communism is a society in which private property and social class do not exist and the government owns all things necessary to make and transport products. Communism is generally considered to be the opposite of capitalism, which is a society that emphasizes private property and the private sale and trade of goods. Rather than emphasizing equality of wealth, capitalism emphasizes inequality based on merit - those who work the best and hardest should, in theory, earn more than those who don't.

Early Forms of Communism

A truly communist society has never existed in history. However, a variety of thinkers have shared their own views on the subject. One of the earliest descriptions of communism appeared in Plato's Republic. In his writing, Plato describes the ideal world in which nothing is owned privately and everything is publicly shared. Plato's Republic had such extreme communism that even monogamous relationships would not be allowed in society. Everyone could have a sexual relationship with anyone else in his society!

Another famous form of communism came in Thomas Moore's Utopia. This book describes a bizarre but fictitious island called Utopia. No private property exists on the island, and all wealth is stored inside shelters. Whenever a person needs something they simply go to the shelter and get it without having to pay. The society is predominantly agricultural, and people live in huge families and eat in communal dining halls. Moore's fantasy world became so famous that today the word 'utopia' describes an imaginary society where the laws, government, and people are completely perfect.

Marxist Communism

By far the most famous form of communism is Marxist Communism. Based on the writings of Karl Marx, the concept of Marxist Communism became very influential in the 20th century because it inspired the communist revolutions of the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Korea, Nicaragua, and Cuba, among others. Marx was a prolific writer who wrote several books and pamphlets. His most famous pamphlet was called the Communist Manifesto. In it, he laid out his main ideas for communism.

The most famous line from the Communist Manifesto declared that 'the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.' Marx believed that the history of the world was about competition between different social classes. In other words, there has always been some small group of people in charge who tells everyone else what to do. That is not to say that the weaker social classes just accept the power of the dominant class, though. Rather, there is always a constant struggle between the social classes.

For Marx, the dominant class is determined by who owns the means of production, or things necessary to make goods. Marx believed that in the capitalist society, the dominant social class was the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class. The bourgeoisie are the owners of factories and businesses. Since these factory owners own the machines that produce everything, they are the dominant class in society.

Subordinate to the factory owners were the factory workers. Marx asserted that despite putting in hard labor, these factory workers get paid very little and ultimately were exploited by the capitalists. Marx predicted that one day the workers would become so agitated with the factory owners they would rise up and overthrow the dominant class. Then, the workers would institute a communist society in which all private property was abolished and all goods were shared publicly. People would continue to work but only 'according to their ability' and everyone would receive 'according to their need.'

Marxist-Leninist Communism

Although no country has ever successfully instituted communism, many have attempted to implement it. Inspired by the ideas of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin tried to institute communism in his native Russia. A long-time political activist, Lenin was a member of the Bolshevik political party in Russia. For his political activities, Lenin was exiled from Russia by the Czar. However, political instability in Russia during the First World War opened the gate for Lenin to return and begin a revolution against an unstable provisional government. Seizing power, Lenin sought to institute communism in Russia.

However, Russia was highly agricultural and unindustrialized. It was not a fit for Marx's ideal candidate for a communist revolution. As a result, rather than instituting pro-communist changes, Lenin attempted to institute his New Economic Program. Believe it or not, this economic program ended up implementing more capitalist reforms than communist reforms. Lenin said it was necessary because we have to take one step backward to go two steps forward. The attempts to implement Marxist Communism have never been able to achieve Marx's visionary goal.

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