What is Communism? Definition and meaning

Communism is an economic, social and political ideology in which everything belongs to everybody – common ownership – and the economy is centrally-controlled; it is a command economy. In a communist society, everybody is equal, there are no social classes, and salaries are (in theory) more or less the same.

Communism is a social and economic system in which nearly all resources and property are collectively owned by society – not individual citizens.

The system is based on the ‘Communist Manifesto’, a political manuscript that was published in 1848 and written by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). The manuscript represents an analytical approach to the class struggle and the problems of the free market (capitalism) and the capitalist mode of production.

Karl Marx CommunismKarl Marx once said: “The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.” (Image: Wikipedia)

Marx and Engels believed that in a communist society – social relations should be regulated by people’s ability and needs.

Marx witnessed many profound changes in society in Europe brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The emergency of new technology and the creation of the factory system of manufacturing made both industry and agriculture considerably more efficient, which created enormous wealth for factory owners.



However, industrial workers did not share in this new prosperity. In fact, most of them lived and died in dreadful slums and had horrible and dangerous working conditions.

Communism is not the same as socialism. All European socialist parties accept the capitalist system, but want to add better safety nets for vulnerable people and ensure universal access to some services.

Communism and the state

In a communist society, the major productive resources – such as farms, factories and mines – are owned by the state or the ‘people’, wealth is equally divided among citizens or according to need.

Communism today and beforeThe countries in orange used to be communist, while those in red still are. (Image: en.academic.ru)

Communism was established in many countries during the 20th century, including Russia, China, Cuba, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, and North Korea. At one time during the last century, approximately one-third of the whole world’s population lived in a communist system.



The decline of communism

During the last two decades of the 20th century, communism collapsed in most of the world, with the exception of China, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea – the only remaining communist regimes today. Whether economic communism still exists in China today is debatable.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, a reform-minded Politburo member, became leader of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Mr. Gorbachev’s policy of ‘restructuring’ (Perestroika) and ‘openness’ (Glasnost) introduced freedom of expression – something that had not existed in any of the communist regimes.

Marx did not know that freedom of expression would disappear in a communist system. Had he known, one wonders whether his and Engels’ Communist Manifesto might have been written differently.

All countries in history that have adopted communism – a centrally-commanded economy – have one thing in common; they eventually have to implement rationing because the system does not produce enough goods and services for the population.

What is communismIn a communist system, the state (government, people) owns everything and tells everybody what to do.

Mr. Gorbachev also introduced democratic elections for some offices and introduced a series of economic reforms. The Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe also experienced similar changes. As the iron grip of communist totalitarianism loosened, the communist system rapidly collapsed.

It first collapsed in some Eastern European states, and then in The Soviet Union itself in the beginning of the 1990s. Mr. Gorbachev resigned in December 1991, and the country – The Soviet Union – ceased to exist. It was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States, at the center of it was Russia, a democratic state. Communism as a globally important movement was gone.

Boris YeltsinBoris Yeltsin (1931-2007), a Soviet and Russian politician and the first President of the Russian Federation, once said: “Let’s not talk about Communism. Communism was just an idea, just pie in the sky.” (Image: Wikipedia)

Why did communism collapse?

It became evident after the Second World War that the people who lived in communist regimes were considerably less happy compared to their counterparts in North America and Western Europe. Winston Churchill warned of an ‘Iron Curtain’ emerging between the free-market democracies and the communist world.

In fact, in Berlin they had to build a large wall to stop people escaping from the communist system. Hardly anybody tried or wanted to abandon Western Europe for the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, but hundreds of thousands in Eastern Europe tried to get out.

Apart from the Berlin Wall, border guards were placed to stop the residents of communist regimes from escaping. In the North/South Korean border, North Korea placed thousands of land mines to deter their citizens from leaving.

Winston Churchill Iron Curtain speechIn 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe and declared: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” His speech is considered one of the opening volleys announcing the beginning of the Cold War. (Image: winstonchurchill.org)

Economists and historians say that communism did not work because people did not like it. They did not like it because:

It was a dictatorship. There was no way to judge the government’s performance with free democratic elections in which other parties with different systems could argue their case to the electorate and win elections.

Initiative and creativity: two basic and important human instincts, were frowned upon. The state told you what to do, what to think, how to behave, what to buy, where to live, where to go on vacation, etc. In the Soviet Union, for example, people were not allowed to travel to different regions within the country without a special permit.

Censorship: artists, poets, actors and writers were not allowed to express themselves freely. Those whose works and ideas were not compatible with communist ideology were censured – either told to stop or locked up.

No competition: in a centrally controlled economy there is no competition. The state runs all production and distribution. In effect, virtually everything is supplied by monopolies. The quality of products was very low. State companies that did not make a profit were heavily subsidized. Apart from producing sub-standard products and delivering poor services, many state enterprises consumed enormous amounts of money.

Military Spending: military spending in all the communist regimes has always been very high – far too high. Many elderly Russians today say that the Soviet-US arms race during the Cold War drove the Soviet Union to bankruptcy.

Communism and corruptionIn every communist system, corruption thrives. Equality becomes a word used by the propaganda machine. In reality, Communist Party members have all the luxuries, privileges and money. (Image: twitter.com/DollarVigilante)

Humans cherish independence

Humans need to express themselves, we like to own things and make decisions ourselves regarding our lives and how our children live and are educated. Too many people like to be in charge of their own businesses. Communism does not let them do this – it stifles initiative, creativity, and encourages corruption.

If you compare two countries – Germany and Korea – that were split down the middle; one half communist and the other half free-market democracies – and look at the people’s standard of living, the difference is stark.

West Germany was considerably richer than East Germany. The average citizen in South Korea has a standard of living that the North Korean can only dream of.

In North Korea, citizens have very little choice when they want to buy things. Shortages are very common. Nobody is allowed to criticize their government. In South Korea, shops are always full of products, there are never any shortages, and people can demonstrate in the streets against their government and freely criticize their leaders. West and East Germany had similar differences.

Video – What is communism?

This Khan Academy explains what a communist system is in easy-to-understand terms and examples.