Dan Novacovici, political prisoner in Romania1
This chapter offers an introduction to the terms, key documents, historic figures, and events that inform the theory, ideology, and system of rule known as communism. The theory of communism was developed by German philosophers and friends Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who coauthored the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).* This famous work provides the foundational theory and ideology for future communist totalitarians, such as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro.
Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, creating and maintaining communist governments has resulted in the deaths of over 100 million people and the subjugation of hundreds of millions more. From Lenin’s Red Terror to North Korea’s Kim dynasty, totalitarian rulers across history and the globe have implemented their versions of communism with disastrous results. These regimes possess six key characteristics: an official ideology, a one-party authoritarian state**, a monopoly on violence, control of all information and mass media (including books, radio and television, movies, and now the Internet), a government-planned and centrally-controlled economy, and the use of a communist party-controlled terroristic security service.2 Those in power use these features to exert the level of control needed to suppress or eliminate any threat to the communist regime and its totalitarian leadership.
* Since 1848, the Communist Manifesto of the Communist Party has never been out of print, and approximately 500 million copies have been sold. This is roughly the same as the Harry Potter series, which from 1997-2007 sold 500 million copies worldwide. The Bible remains the top seller. Since 1815, more than 3.7 billion copies have been sold. https://www.deutschland.de/en/topic/knowledge/200-years-of-karl-marx-seven-facts and https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/this-book-sold-the-most-copies.
** As drawn from Merriam-Webster Dictionary, authoritarian refers to the blind submission to a ruler’s authority and the concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people.
Karl Marx and communism Friedrich Engels. Photo via World History Archive.
This section relies upon standard definitions, drawn from Merriam-Webster’s English Dictionary, to provide comparative descriptions of communism, socialism, Marxism, totalitarianism, democracy, and capitalism:3
Communism: a totalitarian system of government in which a single-party authoritarian state eliminates private property and owns and controls the means of production. It is the final stage of society in Marxist theory, in which the state has withered away, and economic goods are distributed equitably.4
Socialism: a political and economic system in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies. This includes government or public ownership and control of major parts of the economy, including industry. Under Marx’s theory, socialism is a stage of society between capitalism and communism that is distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.5
Marxism: Karl Marx’s political, economic, and social theories of communism, including the ideological belief that the struggle between social classes is a major force in history and that there will eventually be a society in which there are no classes. It calls for the dictatorship of the proletariat until the establishment of a classless society.6
Totalitarianism: a political system in which individuals and society are completely submissive to an all-powerful state that is administered by an authoritarian, or undisputed, leader.7
Democracy: a form of government in which the people choose their leaders by voting in elections and power is exercised by the majority, either directly or indirectly, typically through a system of representation.8
Capitalism: an economic practice characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods (those goods used to produce other goods, not those purchased directly by consumers), by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market without government control.9
Republic: a form of government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to the people and the rule of law.10
Different Ideas on the Role of Government and the Individual Citizen
We can compare and contrast democracy and communism through a review of the ideas found in key documents from each. The U.S. Constitution’s first 10 amendments (our Bill of Rights) guarantee fundamental rights common to all citizens. The Communist Manifesto provides 10 measures to achieve communism that Marx and Engels claimed would happen in the “most advanced” countries as they marched inevitably toward communism. The United States’ form of government secures the rights of the individual, who then chooses how to live their life and provide for themselves and their family. The economic practices of capitalism tend to accompany this form of government. America’s founding documents recognize human rights grounded in nature and endowed by God, and establish government to secure these rights by protecting individuals from and limiting the power of the state. Under a constitutional form of government, America protects the rights discussed below and maintains these rights and many others under the rule of law and the consent of the governed. Although not always living up to these ideals, America, more than any other country, has made a concerted effort to protect the rights of its people as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Bill of Rights ratified in December 1791 lists 10 statements on natural rights, civil rights, and individual liberty:
1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
2. A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
3. No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
4. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
5. No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
6. In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
7. In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
8. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
9. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The Communist Manifesto. Photo via Graham Hardy / Alamy Stock Photo.
Marx and Engels’ measures for achieving a communist system stand in stark contrast to the Bill of Rights, not to mention the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Communism seeks to eliminate individualism, family, and civil society and to establish state control of society and communal ownership of property. The Communist Manifesto calls for the destruction of all aspects of the old “bourgeois” society by violence, revolution, and “despotic inroads on the rights of property.” Despite strong confidence in their theory, the founding fathers of communism acknowledged that “violent overthrow” and “civil war” are necessary to achieve their vision of a new world order.12 From the beginning, Marx and Engels understood and embraced the idea that violence would be required by the state against any who might resist.
As set forth in the Manifesto, Communism’s 10 measures to achieve a new system:
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
American democracy is built on the truth of human equality and creates a free society in which all flourish because all are endowed with the inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Communism not only distorts, discards, and seeks to remake human nature, but is driven to destroy and replace free society and democratic self-government with a state-controlled society. According to Marxism, only under communist rule would the individual truly be equal and free. Sadly, as history has demonstrated repeatedly, the opposite is true.
Communism: From Theory and Ideology to System of State Control
Communism predicted a socialist future in which the people collectively own the means and mode of production and the goods they produce are available for all who need them, but it has proved to be an inherently flawed and unattainable theory. Marx also prescribed revolutionary activism, and his theory became indistinguishable from a radical ideology that mandates state control of its people by a variety of tools common to all communist and totalitarian regimes: violence, repression, and deprivation.
The German-American political scientist, Carl Friedrich (1901-1984), suggested that totalitarian regimes display six common characteristics: 1) an official ideology; 2) a one-party state; 3) a monopoly on violence; 4) control of all information and mass media (including books, radio and television, movies, and now the Internet); 5) a government-planned and centrally controlled economy, and 6) the use of a party-controlled terroristic security service.14 Friedrich’s contemporary and fellow German-American, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), noted that these regimes maintain one additional element: the identification of an objective enemy.15 A cursory view of any communist or totalitarian state clearly brings into focus each of these characteristics. Communist and totalitarian leaders employed and continue to employ these common tools to achieve the level of state control necessary to compel compliance against their common enemy – anyone who opposes in any way the state, party, or leader. At its core, a communist totalitarian system is one in which the state first must destroy all aspects of the previous society (political, religious, cultural, and the individual’s own view of the world) to create a new society. It bans all political and social activity not explicitly approved by the regime to ensure its primacy and survival.16
In nearly all communist countries throughout history, one totalitarian ruler, at the head of an authoritarian party backed by an oppressive, all-encompassing state security service, has established and ensured the preservation of the regime. Below are examples of how such individuals adapted the theory and ideology of communism in their quest to gain power and control their people.
Sergey Nechayev (1847-1882) was an early believer in communist theory and led the Russian Nihilist movement’s revolutionary period of the 1860s through the early 1880s. The group promoted the communist principles of atheism, revolution, and the abolition of private property.17 Nechayev promoted revolution by any means necessary, spreading his principles and theory to future generations of communist totalitarian leaders through the Nihilist movement and his book, Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869). Nechayev’s approach influenced Vladimir Lenin’s understanding of a revolutionary.18
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) adopted the theory of communism to transform the Russian Empire into the first communist state. Using Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party, Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, and his own writings as a foundation, Lenin prioritized violence to expand and institutionalize communism in the new Soviet Union. After the failed 1905 revolution, Lenin gained power in 1917 during the Russian Revolution (1917-1922), which saw 7 million people perish in the nation’s violent birth.19 He established a one-party dictatorship for Soviet Russia and implemented Marx and Engels’ communist measures, abolishing private property, restricting the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and press, and silencing all opponents of the Bolshevik party.20 Lenin oversaw the creation of the secret police (Cheka) and the Gulag, a vast system of forced labor camps.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) took control of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death in 1924. Building on the ideologies of Marx and Lenin, he formulated Stalinism, which furthered the totalitarian police state, produced rapid industrialization, collectivized agriculture, entrenched a centralized planned economy, and proclaimed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as the leading state of the world communist revolution.21 He enlarged the security forces designed to oppress the peoples within the USSR and maintain his position of power. He also expanded the Gulag system, especially during waves of purges in the 1930s that became known as Stalin’s Great Terror. Stalin systematically eliminated all enemies, real or imagined, throughout Soviet society. He targeted a specific class of people, the kulaks (slightly wealthier peasant farmers). Stalin compelled 320,000 kulaks to give up their harvests and homes and forced them into forced labor camps.22 Later, between 1937-1938, one in every twenty people in the Soviet Union were arrested and over 1.9 million people were imprisoned in the Gulag.23 The Great Terror included systematic repression, suppression of any dissent, ethnic cleansing, widescale police surveillance, and purges of government and military officials. The resulting death toll is estimated to be 950,000 to 1.2 million people.24 Stalin’s repression, violence, deprivations, and drive for complete state control of the people led to the deaths of as many as 20 million people.25
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) emerged as a key leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the first stage of the Chinese Civil War in the 1920s and applied and added to Marxism-Leninism. Following the defeat of the Nationalist government in 1949, Mao established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a single-party state controlled by the Chinese Communists. Mao’s totalitarian system, much like his Soviet counterparts’, used and relied on repression and violence. His Land Reform Movement witnessed the murder of up to 3 million people.26 The Great Leap Forward program (1958-1961), aimed at making strides in industrialization, resulted in famine that killed between 30 to 43 million people.27 From 1966 to 1976, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in China, a movement which sought to reinforce Maoism by eliminating anything associated with pre-communist culture, capitalism, and any other alleged threat to his rule. This period witnessed a reign of terror and brutality that claimed 1-3 million lives.28 Overall, Mao’s policies and actions resulted in the deaths of between 40 and 80 million people.29
Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), educated and trained by both the CCP and the Soviets, was the first totalitarian ruler of communist North Korea. In 1945, following World War II, the allied powers divided Korea into two states along the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union occupied North Korea and installed a communist government. The Soviets appointed Kim Il Sung as the leader of North Korea through an election engineered by the USSR in 1948. After two years of planning and with direct support from the USSR and soon after, the PRC, Kim initiated the Korean War by invading South Korea in June 1950.30 As U.S. and UN forces drove North Korean forces toward the Yalu River, China grew increasingly concerned that the Kim regime would fall. Mao ordered a massive offensive of over 300,000 Chinese troops in early November 1950 that drove the allied forces south of the 38th parallel, where the battle line would remain for the next three years.31 The war to unite Korea under communism resulted in more than 4 million deaths, including roughly 2 million civilians.32 After the war, the North Korean leader was responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including public executions of political opponents and the creation of prison labor camps.33 Today, the Kim dynasty—now in its third generation—still leads an isolated communist regime in the North known for human rights abuses, famine, poverty, and nuclear brinkmanship.
Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), a committed Marxist-Leninist educated in Paris and Moscow, led the communist Viet Minh against the French during the First Indochina War (1946-1954), taking control of North Vietnam and establishing a communist government. After the war, Ho executed between 3,000 and 15,000 Vietnamese civilians to solidify his control.34 Ho Chi Minh next sparked the Vietnam War (1955-1975), also known as the Second Indochina War, to expand his communist regime through the whole country. By 1975, between 1-3 million people had lost their lives in the conflict as North Vietnam and its forces, along with support from the PRC and later the Soviet Union, defeated the South Vietnamese and their US and other allies.35 North Vietnam’s military quickly consolidated power and eliminated opposition, executing an estimated 65,000 political prisoners after the fall of Saigon.36 Vietnam’s communist government continues to control the country today.
Pol Pot (1925-1998), a Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideologue and head of the Khmer Rouge movement, led Cambodia’s communist revolution. Pol Pot planned and carried out the Cambodian Civil War (1967-1975), which left 250,000 Cambodians dead in his pursuit of a communist state.37 Following the Khmer Rouge’s civil war victory in 1975, he carried out the Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979), killing anyone or any group deemed to be anti-communist and a threat to his rule, especially political opponents, intellectuals, and religious leaders. Pol Pot forced urban residents into the jungle, abolished money, religion, and the family, and conducted mass executions. An induced famine resulted in the deaths of about two million people, approximately a quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population.38
Fidel Castro (1926-2016), a revolutionary socialist influenced by Marxism-Leninism, failed in his first coup attempt in Cuba in the 1950s. After imprisonment at home and self-exile in Mexico, Castro returned with his Marxist-Leninist comrade Ernesto “Che” Guevara to Cuba in November 1956 to wage guerrilla warfare against the regime of Fulgencio Batista, and in January 1959 to win a violent revolution that would result in thousands of summary executions.39 The communists filled the power vacuum; under Castro, Cuba immediately began limiting freedom of speech and the press and officially became a single-party totalitarian regime in 1965.40 Castro executed between 7,000 and 10,000 people and imprisoned another 30,000 citizens who had supported Batista.41 Castro also punished those who spoke out against the new regime; from 1959 through the 1990s, more than 100,000 Cuban citizens experienced life in a Cuban internment camp, prison, or other facility.42 Communist rule, including repression of dissent, free speech, and assembly, continues in Cuba today. Cuba’s prolonged economic depression has forced the communist regime to pursue minor privatization of industry and limited economic reform to preserve their place in power and prevent a total collapse of the economy.
Fidel Castro (center) in 1959. Photo via Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.
11 Essential Dates in the History of Communism
1848 – Publication of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party created the political, socioeconomic theory and ideology of communism. The 30-page pamphlet was published by a German printer in London in February 1848.43
1917 – Lenin Launches the Russian Revolution
Following Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication in 1917 and sensing a lack of support for the weak Russian provisional government, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks launched a coup and started the Russian Revolution (1917-1922). After the Bolshevik Coup in November 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks defeated the Russian Republic’s White Army in a brutal, five-year war.44 In February 1918, Lenin and his supporters consolidated power and established the one-party communist state of Soviet Russia, later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; in March, he renamed the Bolshevik Party the Russian Communist Party.45
1939 – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union Sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. Both nations sought to ensure that neither side would attack the other as they invaded and divided Poland in September 1939. The Soviet Union forced Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to sign pacts of non-aggression to prevent war, but still invaded each country later despite the treaties.46 Likewise, Stalin invaded Finland in December 1939 and parts of Romania in 1940.47 In 1941, Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Allied victory in World War II came at a steep price for the USSR, with losses of 8-10 million soldiers and more than 20 million civilians, which was in part caused by Stalin’s prewar strategy and wartime incompetence and interference with the military.48
1946 – Stalin Delivers Moscow Speech and Soviets Occupy Europe
Following World War II, Stalin delivered a speech to a meeting of party loyalists on February 9 that claimed both World Wars were a result of capitalism, and that the Soviets were the liberating force in each conflict.49 While giving this “re-election” address, Stalin continued to break his promises to his World War II allies and kept Soviet forces in the occupied territories of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Baltic States, forcing each occupied nation to establish communist governments.50
1949 – Mao Zedong Establishes the People’s Republic of China
Following a destructive civil war that saw 6 million Chinese perish in pursuit of communism, Mao Zedong gained control in China.51 The People’s Republic of China next invaded and seized Tibet, as Mao claimed China had the historic right to control the area.52 Mao also implemented repressive policies such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), which, by itself, caused approximately 43 million deaths, a victim toll greater than both Hitler’s and Stalin’s combined.53 In the years following, Mao developed new goals to move China towards his vision of a communist society. He purged his enemies within the Party to consolidate power, and sought to destroy traditional Chinese culture, replacing it with a communist society. In the Cultural Revolution, he used millions of young, impressionable students as his shock troops. They came to be known as Mao’s Red Guards.54 These students violently turned on their teachers, their parents, and even on other Red Guard groups.55 Mao’s Cultural Revolution lasted from May 1966 to the end of 1968. It was a dark period of terror and brutality that claimed 1-3 million lives.56
1956 – Soviets Crush Eastern European Independence Movements
The Poznan Uprising in Poland protested the communist regime, Soviet occupation, and economic chaos, with thousands of striking workers joined by other Poles in what became a full-fledged revolt for Bread and Freedom.57 The communists brutally crushed the rebellion with tank divisions and over 10,000 troops.58 In Hungary, students, workers, and other citizens took up arms against the Stalinist regime in a fight for freedom that lasted almost two weeks. To suppress the revolution, Soviet tanks invaded Budapest, and 2,502 Hungarians were killed in bloody street fighting, tens of thousands were imprisoned, and more than 200 were executed by the communists.59
1961 – East Germany Builds the Berlin Wall
The Soviet Union ordered the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall to secure the “dangerous border” and prevent the further defections of East Germans to the West.60 The wall was 96 miles long and cut off the democratic West from the communist East with large concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and guard towers.61 A physical barrier between East and West Europe also began north from the Finnish Border south to the Black Sea.62
1968 – Czechs and Slovaks Mount Resistance with the Prague Spring
Czechs and Slovaks engaged in mass protests and demonstrated for political liberalization when First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, briefly ended censorship. Soon, the people demanded more freedom than Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” would allow.63 In the largest military operation since World War II, the Soviet Union and several of its satellite countries sent in troops, tanks, and aircraft to repress democratic principles and reinstate communist ideology and control.64
1975 – The Vietnam War Comes to an End
The fight to establish communism in Vietnam after the American withdrawal resulted in 65,000 Vietnamese civilians killed directly by the North Vietnamese forces.65 North Vietnam won the war, formed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976, and immediately imposed a system of repression and violence. The communists forced citizens of South Vietnam into re-education camps, where they endured deprivations and death at the hands of the communist regime. Hundreds of thousands fled by sea, and they became known as Vietnamese boat people, with many settling in Europe and the United States.66
1979 – The Soviets Invade Afghanistan and the Pope Visits Poland
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began a 10-year wartime occupation that resulted in the deaths of 800,000-1.5 million Afghan people. Afghan Freedom Fighters, also called the Mujahideen, were secretly supported by the United States, won the war, and evicted Soviet forces from the nation in 1989.67 The year 1979 also saw Pope John Paul II’s historic first visit to his native Poland.68 The Pope, who had lived under Nazism and Communism in Poland, strongly condemned both ideologies, and became a significant figure in the collapse of communism in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.69 John Paul’s visits to his homeland revealed to the world that the Polish people had never lost their faith and were united in their opposition to communism.70
1989 – The Berlin Wall Falls and Communism Collapses in Eastern and Central Europe
A wave of national movements for independence and freedom swept Eastern and Central Europe, ultimately leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in the region.71 The movements took place in the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania.72
Fall of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Photo via Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo.
The Nature of Communist Regimes and How They Maintain Control
Communist regimes commonly use the tools of violence, repression, and deprivation as means of control. The totalitarian regimes described above denied fundamental human rights to their citizens as they imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or simply killed anyone who opposed their rule. The communist ideology is responsible for more than 100 million deaths since its inception in 1917.73
Costs and Conclusion
The differences between the U.S. democratic form of government and the Soviet communist system were not only confined to concerns about freedom and natural rights versus tyranny, violence, and repression. We can also measure the economic and quality-of-life impact of communism. The economic deprivation is clear in the communist bloc. Throughout the Cold War, the United States’ GDP per capita, an indicator of a nation’s economic productivity per person, consistently and substantially exceeded that of the Soviet Union. In 1950, the USSR’s GDP per capita was $2,834 while the United States was $9,561. By 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, this gap had expanded, as the American GDP per capita had grown to $23,214 while the Soviet GDP per capita was just $6,871.74
Today, over 1.5 billion people live under repressive communist governments in China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea.75 These five regimes utilize the same tools as the Soviet Union to maintain state control. It is estimated that two million citizens in China, mostly consisting of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, are being held in CCP “re-education” camps.76 Additionally, Cuba and North Korea imprison tens of thousands of citizens in hard labor camps like the USSR’s Gulag system.77