Communism | Definition, History, Varieties, & Facts (2024)

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Written by

Richard Dagger Professor of Political Science, Arizona State University, Tempe. Author of Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism and others.

Richard Dagger,

Terence Ball Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Arizona State University, Tempe. Author of Reappraising Political Theory and others.

Terence BallAll

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Key People:
Vladimir Lenin
Mao Zedong
Joseph Stalin
Nikita Khrushchev
Leon Trotsky
Related Topics:
National Communism
Eurocommunism
democratic centralism
primitive communism
anarcho-communism

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Top Questions

What is communism?

Communism is a political and economic system that seeks to create a classless society in which the major means of production, such as mines and factories, are owned and controlled by the public. There is no government or private property or currency, and the wealth is divided among citizens equally or according to individual need. Many of communism’s tenets derive from the works of German revolutionary Karl Marx, who (with Friedrich Engels) wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848). However, over the years others have made contributions—or corruptions, depending on one’s perspective—to Marxist thought. Perhaps the most influential changes were proposed by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, who notably supported authoritarianism.

LeninismLearn about Leninism.

Which countries are communist?

At one time about one-third of the world's population lived under communist governments, most notably in the republics of the Soviet Union. Today communism is the official form of government in only five countries: China, North Korea, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam. However, none of these meet the true definition of communism. Instead, they can be said to be in a transitional stage between the end of capitalism and the establishment of communism. Such a phase was outlined by Karl Marx, and it came to include the creation of a dictatorship of the proletariat. While all five countries have authoritarian governments, their commitment to abolishing capitalism is debatable.

Read more below:Communism today

How is communism different from socialism?

Exactly how communism differs from socialism has long been a matter of debate. Karl Marx used the terms interchangeably. For many, however, the difference can be seen in the two phases of communism as outlined by Marx. The first is a transitional system in which the working class controls the government and economy yet still pays people according to how long, hard, or well they work. Capitalism and private property exist, though to a limited degree. This phase is widely regarded as socialism. However, in Marx’s fully realized communism, society has no class divisions or government or personal property. The production and distribution of goods is based upon the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

NoneRead more about socialism.

What are the origins of communism?

Although the term communism did not come into use until the 1840s, societies that may be considered communist were described as long ago as the 4th century BCE, when Plato wrote the Republic. That work described an ideal society in which the governing class devotes itself to serving the interests of the whole community. The first Christians practiced a simple form of communism, and in Utopia (1516) the English humanist Thomas More described an imaginary society in which money is abolished and people share meals, houses, and other goods in common. However, communism is most widely identified with Karl Marx, who outlined the system with Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx’s embrace of communism was motivated in part by the inequities caused by the Industrial Revolution.

Read more below:Historical background

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communism, 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.

(Read Leon Trotsky’s 1926 Britannica essay on Lenin.)

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, and 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.

Historical background

Although the term communism did not come into use until the 1840s—it is derived from the Latin communis, meaning “shared” or “common”—visions of a society that may be considered communist appeared as long ago as the 4th century bce. In the ideal state described in Plato’s Republic, the governing class of guardians devotes itself to serving the interests of the whole community. Because private ownership of goods would corrupt their owners by encouraging selfishness, Plato argued, the guardians must live as a large family that shares common ownership not only of material goods but also of spouses and children.

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Other early visions of communism drew their inspiration from religion. The first Christians practiced a simple kind of communism—as described in Acts 4:32–37, for example—both as a form of solidarity and as a way of renouncing worldly possessions. Similar motives later inspired the formation of monastic orders in which monks took vows of poverty and promised to share their few worldly goods with each other and with the poor. The English humanist Sir Thomas More extended this monastic communism in Utopia (1516), which describes an imaginary society in which money is abolished and people share meals, houses, and other goods in common.

Other fictional communistic utopias followed, notably City of the Sun (1623), by the Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella, as did attempts to put communist ideas into practice. Perhaps the most noteworthy (if not notorious) of the latter was the theocracy of the Anabaptists in the Westphalian city of Münster (1534–35), which ended with the military capture of the city and the execution of its leaders. The English Civil Wars (1642–51) prompted the Diggers to advocate a kind of agrarian communism in which the Earth would be “a common treasury,” as Gerrard Winstanley envisioned in The Law of Freedom (1652) and other works. The vision was not shared by the Protectorate led by Oliver Cromwell, which harshly suppressed the Diggers in 1650.

It was neither a religious upheaval nor a civil war but a technological and economic revolution—the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—that provided the impetus and inspiration for modern communism. This revolution, which achieved great gains in economic productivity at the expense of an increasingly miserable working class, encouraged Marx to think that the class struggles that dominated history were leading inevitably to a society in which prosperity would be shared by all through common ownership of the means of production.

Communism | Definition, History, Varieties, & Facts (2024)
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