Historical Perspectives on Communism & Socialism

Historical Perspectives on Communism & Socialism


In the 18th century, French radical thinkers promoted communist programs calling for the abolition of all private wealth, on grounds that it was the cause of all human misery. The French revolutionary François Noël Babeuf, for one, organized a “conspiracy for equality” which called for the socialization of all property.

A number of voluntary communist societies were established in North America during the 19th century. Especially noteworthy was New Harmony, founded in Indiana in 1825 by the British philanthropist Robert Owen. But New Harmony and other ventures like it inevitably failed because of their inability to resolve the problem of “free riders”—residents who drew a full share of their communities’ harvests and benefits while doing little if any work.

In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formulated the doctrine of “scientific socialism,” which identified the abolition of private property as a prerequisite to human freedom. Marx asserted that a revolution to destroy what he regarded as the depraved, exploitative capitalist system of the industrialized West—and to subsequently install an egalitarian, classless society—was not only desirable and feasible, but inevitable. His notion that humanity was moving inexorably toward a higher plane of social and economic organization was influenced by Charles Darwin’s scientific writings about evolution, and by the philosopher Hegel’s concept of the human spirit’s historical ascendancy.

In Marx’s calculus, Communism would foster the development of a prototypical “new man,” who would not be infected by the greed and inhumanity of his predecessors. Marx said that “the present generation … must also perish in order to make room for the people who are fit for a New World.” Decades later, Leon Trotsky would speak of “a higher socio-biological type, a superman … incomparably stronger, wiser, more subtle” than men of earlier ages. Figures such as Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong would likewise justify the deaths of tens of millions to make way for the New Man capable of building a communist utopia.

Marx rejected nationalism, deeming it a tool which the bourgeoisie used to distract the masses from their true mission—a trans-national class struggle of industrial workers worldwide.

In 1864 in London, Marxists founded the International Workingmen’s Association, popularly known as the First International, which sought to unite various leftwing political groups and trade unions advocating a united class struggle by workers all over the globe. But when capitalism, contrary to Marx’s prediction, proved not only to be durable but also capable of elevating the estate of the common worker (Marx would claim that their allegiance to the status quo was caused by a “false consciousness” that convinced them they had a stake in the “system”), the First International disbanded in 1876.

After Marx’s death in 1883, socialists and communists began to revise his theories and predictions. In the Western democracies these revisions generally downplayed Marx’s revolutionary zeal and promoted social democracy, a political ideology advocating society’s peaceful, evolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism by means of established political processes rather than violent revolution. A leading exponent of social democracy was the Fabian Society, founded in London in 1883. Further promoted by the Second International (formed in 1889), the ideals of social democracy dominated socialist politics until the outbreak of the First World War.

Asserting that trans-national class alliances should supersede national loyalties, the Second International opposed WWI. But national loyalties ultimately trumped the notion of worker and class solidarity. German Social Democrats and French Socialists alike, contrary to their solemn pledges, voted in favor of war credits. After WWI, socialism and nationalism became more intertwined—particularly in the national socialism of such future dictators as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

In 1917, with the world convulsed in global war, the first truly Communist state was born in Russia when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolutionaries staged a coup against the Tsar in November 1917. Despite the fact that only 5.3 percent of Russia’s industrial workers belonged to the Bolshevik Party at that time, the new leader—foreshadowing a pattern that would be repeated by every Communist regime that was to follow—secured his own authority by establishing a dictatorship over the entire population. Eager to annihilate his political enemies, Lenin pursued a ruthless quest for “power … that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion.” Toward that end, he created a secret police force, or Cheka, which in later times would evolve into the GPU and OGPU (1922-34), the NKVD (1934-54), and the KGB (1954-1991).

Abolishing all extant legal procedures, Lenin placed the justice system exclusively in the hands of the Cheka and various revolutionary tribunals headed by untrained but “class-conscious” laymen. He shut down the entire non-Bolshevik press and established a central censorship bureau, without whose imprimatur nothing could appear in print.

The Third Communist International, or Comintern, was founded in Moscow in March 1919 and took shape in the summer of 1920, demanding that Communists worldwide follow Moscow’s lead with “iron military discipline.” The immediate priority was for Communists to infiltrate mass organizations, such as trade unions, in their respective countries. Toward that end, Lenin urged party operatives to “resort to every kind of trick, cunning, illegal expedient, concealment, [and] suppression of truth.”

Lenin swiftly nationalized all of Russia’s industries, services, and institutions, placing them under the oversight of a massive state bureaucracy that would eventually consist of 4 million people. Because these bureaucrats knew little or nothing about the industries of which they were now in charge, the Russian economy collapsed. In 1920, large-scale industrial production nationwide was 18% of what it had been in 1913. Industrial workers’ living standards in 1921 were two-thirds below the prewar level. According to one scholar of Communism, the plight of the Russian economy from 1917-1920 was a calamity “unparalleled in the history of mankind.”

To feed the Red Army and solidify his own power, Lenin in 1918 dispatched hordes of urban hoodlums to systematically extract “surplus” food from the rural population. When many of the peasants protested either by striking or by curtailing their food production so as to reduce the “surplus” subject to confiscation, Lenin crushed their dissent with machine guns and poison gas. Moreover, he called for violent pogroms against those “savage exploiters,” “bloodsuckers,” “leeches,” and “vampires” who resisted. Meanwhile, an anti-Bolshevik alliance rebelled against Lenin and plunged the nation into civil war. The war gave rise to a famine that claimed 5.2 million lives—a figure which would have been at least 600 percent higher if not for the massive aid which the United States sent to Russia.

On the foreign front, meanwhile, Lenin tried to instigate worker and peasant revolts against the bourgeoisie of other nations—notably Germany, Hungary, Austria, and Poland. But of these efforts ultimately failed. Lenin resolved to work stealthily through national communist parties to foment wars of “national liberation” in the colonies of capitalist countries.

After Lenin died in late 1923, Joseph Stalin filled the resulting power vacuum. By 1924, Russia had conquered and annexed the borderland regions of Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the first one-party state in human history.

Because Marxist-Leninist dogma held that a Communist society must rest on an industrial base, Stalin in the late 1920s resolved to advance Russian industry at breakneck speed regardless of the human cost. He justified this initiative by announcing, in 1927, that “imperialists” were planning to invade the USSR. To meet this imaginary threat, a massive Soviet industrial and military buildup would be needed. Stalin outlined the path forward in his Five-Year Plan of 1929, which emphasized capital goods: steel and iron, coal, oil, and heavy machinery. By 1932, the USSR’s principal industrial indicators had doubled—but only because its industrial labor force had expanded from 3 million to 6.4 million people whose real earnings were scarcely 1/10 of what they had been six years earlier.

In mid-1929, Stalin announced that peasant farmers would be required to supply food, at rock-bottom prices, to feed Russia’s urban industrial workers and the Soviet Army. He also called for the “liquidation of the kulaks [well off peasants with farms and small amounts of money] as a class,” confiscating their belongings and deporting at least 1.8 million of them either to labor camps or Siberian exile. Meanwhile, three quarters of the country’s people were herded into collective farms as slave laborers. When peasants in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan rebelled, Stalin engineered a famine that killed between 6 and 7 million people in those regions during 1932-33 and annihilated the dissent they represented.

In 1937-38, Stalin consolidated control by unleashing a “Great Terror” in which at least 1.5 million people were convicted of trumped-up charges in hasty show trials and were then sentenced either to death, hard labor, or exile. Many of the victims were college-educated persons who were deemed potentially prone to engage in “sabotage.” In a two-year period, more than 680,000 innocent people were executed. Meanwhile, Stalin’s infamous gulags, where some 30 million inmates toiled as slave laborers, took still more lives.

After World War II, Soviet troops occupied and installed Communist regimes in most of eastern and central Europe. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania became Soviet “satellites,” entirely subservient to Moscow.

In 1948, Moscow instigated a series of armed Communist revolts in Southeast Asia—Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines—all of which were suppressed. The Communists succeeded only in Indochina (Vietnam), where a native guerrilla army expelled the French from the northern half of the country in 1954.

When Mao Zedong took control of mainland China in 1949, the Marxist-Leninist movement suddenly gained a half-billion additional subjects. But rather than take its marching orders from Moscow, China, choosing nationalism over worldwide class allegiance, elected to pursue its own brand of Communism, thereby splitting the Communist movement.

After Stalin died in 1953, his successors wished to preserve the Communist system but felt compelled to repudiate the late dictator’s barbarities. Their solution was to reconnect Communism to Stalin’s predecessor, Lenin. Nikita Khrushchev, who became First Secretary of the Communist Party upon Stalin’s death, thus initiated the veritable deification of Lenin. In a secret speech to the 20th Party Congress three years later, Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s regime for its gross “violation of Leninist norms of legality.” The new Soviet government swiftly turned Stalin into a non-person, removing his corpse from the mausoleum that he had shared with Lenin; renaming Stalingrad as Volgograd; and eliminating the countless portraits and statues of Stalin that had been ubiquitous symbols of his cult-of-personality.

In the aftermath of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s abuses, most of the world’s Communist parties, to varying degrees, adopted the moderately reformist positions of the new Soviet leader.

While life for Soviet citizens did ease considerably under Khrushchev, post-Stalinist Russia nevertheless remained a brutal society whose hallmarks included one-party rule, secret police, and literary censorship. Moreover, when Hungarian rebels sought to reclaim their national independence in 1956, they were crushed by the Soviet military.

Post-Stalin Russia concentrated on two major tasks: building a military juggernaut that could one day defeat the West; and forming anti-Western alliances with nations of the Third World to whom Moscow offered financial and military assistance, particularly in the Middle Eastern and African countries. The objective was to transform the recipients of that aid into economic and political dependents. But over the ensuing three decades, these ventures into the Third World would strain the Soviet treasury beyond its capacity.

One Soviet success story, such as it was, was Cuba, seized by Fidel Castro in 1959. Castro introduced a one-party government, carried out radical land reform, and (with Soviet encouragement) took possession of all American holdings in 1960. In return for Soviet assistance to prop up his catastrophic economy, once Latin America’s second most powerful. Castro loyally supported every Soviet foreign venture and worked to spread Communism throughout Central and Latin America. He completely nationalized all sectors of the Cuban economy except agriculture, and the nation’s living standards plummeted dramatically.

Communist China, meanwhile, was living under Mao Zedong’s so-called “Great Leap Forward,” enacted in 1958. Designed to industrialize China as quickly as possible, this initiative herded more than 700 million people into some 26,578 “People’s Communes” where they performed agricultural work as virtual slaves of the State. The economic chaos created by the Great Leap Forward caused a famine that claimed at least 30 million Chinese lives.

Mao’s other signature undertaking, launched in 1966, was the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” an anti-intellectual movement designed to consolidate the revolution that saw the closure of all schools; the banning of all publications except selected textbooks and Mao’s own works; the veritable deification of Mao; the torture and murder of countless intellectuals; the imprisonment of anyone whose politics deviated from official state doctrine; and the closure and desecration of churches. This totalitarian initiative ended only with Mao’s death in 1976.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the popularity of European Communism diminished noticeably in Western Europe, where it had contended for power during the post war years. The decline was partly attributable to Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s atrocities, and partly to the USSR’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian (1956) and Czechoslovakian (1968) revolts.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia there emerged what the historian Richard Pipes has called “the purest embodiment of communism” ever instituted, when the bloodthirsty dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge dominated Cambodia from 1975-78. Seeking to create the first truly egalitarian society in the world, the Khmer Rouge were prepared to murder as many of their countrymen as they deemed necessary. All told, Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for the deaths of some 2 million Cambodians citizens, or over one-quarter of the country’s population.

In other regions of the Third World, especially Africa, ambitious politicians with minimal knowledge of Communist doctrine invoked Marx and Lenin for two self-serving purposes: to seize private wealth and to qualify for assistance from Moscow and the Communist bloc. Between 1974 in 1991, for example, the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam transformed his country into a full-fledged Soviet satellite. Early in his reign, he abolished private land ownership and forced peasants into communes modeled on those of Mao. His forced collectivization of agriculture decimated the Ethiopian economy and ultimately helped create a famine that killed nearly a million Ethiopians in 1984-85. In 1976 Mengistu launched his own “Red Terror,” employing some 10,000 security agents supplied by the Soviet Union and East Germany to massacre thousands of his own people.

Also in the Seventies, Communism faced a new type of adversary when a powerful trade-union movement called Solidarity emerged in Poland and challenged that nation’s Communist regime directly. Moscow, fearing that the movement might spread to Soviet workers but lacking the will to intervene, called upon the Polish Communists to take the initiative in crushing Solidarity. Warsaw hesitated for some time, but eventually imposed martial law on the country in December 1981 and arrested most of the labor movement’s leaders.

Meanwhile, as the Soviet economy fell ever-farther behind those of other industrialized nations, the phenomenon of dissidence began to flourish and play an increasingly large role in internal Soviet affairs during the Seventies. Though the dissidents were routinely tortured, confined to mental institutions, and subjected to barbaric drug treatments, their high-profile activism took a huge toll on Soviet prestige.

In 1985 the Politburo appointed Mikhail Gorbachev as its First Secretary. In the 1970s he had visited Italy, France, Belgium, and West Germany as a high-ranking Communist Party official. Acknowledging that his “previous belief in the superiority of socialist democracy over the bourgeois system was shaken” by his exposure to the West, Gorbachev was “amazed” by the “open and relaxed attitude” with which Westerners expressed “their unrestrained judgment of everything, including the activity of their governments and their national and local politicians.”

By 1988, Gorbachev and his advisers, trying to transform Communism to make it competitive with the capitalist West, instituted glasnost, which meant an end to government secrecy and a significant relaxation of censorship. Next came perestroika, a restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system.

In 1989, the high-ranking Communist Party official Boris Yeltsin traveled to the United States and, like Gorbachev before him, was stunned to find an “endless row of collapsed stereotypes and clichés.” That same year, the Berlin Wall fell, and subsequently one satellite country after another declared its independence from Moscow.

In 1991 the Russian people, for the first time since 1917, were permitted to vote for their own political officials. Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation in June 1991. Six months later, he declared Russia a sovereign state, thereby dissolving Soviet Union.

The world’s remaining Communist countries today include China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam.

Major Source: Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (2001)

Additional Resources:

The Socialist Phenomenon (full text of book)
By Igor Shafarevich

The Black Book of Communism (full text of book)
By Stephanie Courtois, et al.

Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (notes on the book)
By Joshua Muravchik
June 1, 2003

Nazi and Communist Collaboration In Germany During the Decade Preceding Hitler’s “Third Reich” [1923-1933]
By Emerson Vermaat
April 22, 2008

A Hidden History of Evil
By Claire Berlinski
Spring 2010

An Essay on Historical Writing on Domestic Communism and Anti-Communism
By John Earl Haynes
Winter 2000


America’s First Experiment with Socialism
By Meredith Turney
June 9, 2009


Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism
By Lee Edwards (Heritage Foundation)
January 27, 2010

The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism
By Paul Kengor, Ph.D.
November 2006


Communism: The Promise and the Reality (6-part series)
Kitman TV

The Bloody History of Communism (14-part series)
Kitman TV

The Soviet Story
Kitman TV

Stolen Years: Siberian Gulag
Kitman TV


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