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The history of Communism

The Hammer and Sickle - a symbolic representation for worker-peasant alliance (sickle) and the industrial proletariat (hammer).

The Hammer and Sickle - a symbolic representation for worker-peasant alliance (sickle) and the industrial proletariat (hammer).

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1. What is communism?

Communism is a state-sponsored political economy anchored on a social organization that eliminates private property holdings in favor of communal ownership. It is a political and socioeconomic governing model that dispenses with any social classes and eliminates exploitative relationships. It demands an equitable distribution of wealth based on the perceived currency of labor and productivity.

Communism insists on the removal of the shackles of tradition, and religious and filial servitude. It believes in the pragmatic application of state resources in the development of arts and science as these activities would result in quantifiable future economic returns.

It also advocates the removal of capitalistic governments through revolution, as opposed to socialism, which favors evolution.

2. Genesis of Communism

Many erroneously assume that communism originated from Karl Marx or the old Russia of Lenin and Stalin, often referring to them (in particular, Marx) as the Father of Communism. However, communism, in one form or another, has been present throughout the ages. The concept of a classless society and communal property holdings has been recorded in Sparta of Ancient Greece, the Mazdakist of ancient Persia, and the Hittites of Anatolia, to name a few. Nevertheless, in modern literature, it actually first appeared alongside socialism in the early 17th century England.  It was a term coined as a direct derivative of Owenism, the Utopian statehood model advocated by Robert Owen.

Communism initially referred to a political solution to the age-old problem of vertical class exploitation and disparity of wealth distribution in the old English capitalistic economy and feudal social model. The increasingly oppressive nature of the existing social model was thought to be limited in its ability to protect the lower classes from the ruling and economically-dominant elite. The concept promotes a collective communal framework under the umbrella of a political economy, and therein lies the seed of modern communism.

The most notable political economic thinker of the time was Adam Smith, and his landmark book, Wealth of Nations, was an epic discourse on political economy. The Wealth of Nations presented a comprehensive state model of wealth redistribution among the populace that bypasses existing social class barriers, and consequently, increases the wealth of its citizens.

The Wealth of Nations  illustrated how productivity-based earnings from the manufacturing sector, as well as the follow up taxation by the government, is traditionally and substantially channeled to the elite ruling class and landowners, who in turn, hoard the income and siphon it out of the economy, leaving the peasant class to continue being economically marginalized. The trickle-down effects of economic growth diminish to the point of insignificance, and at times, create spikes in inflation.

Smith’s theory incubated among the social thinkers of the period and eventually came to the attention of the scion of an elite and influential Irish family in Roscarberry, Cork. William Thompson, born in 1775, was a strange champion for the common folk, coming from a wealthy and privileged background. He was possibly the first serious proponent of change for the then prevailing national political-economic model.

As a young man, Thompson was an idealist, and spent a substantial amount of time and money toward diverse causes, ranging from national issues such as the French Revolution, to the more obscure and much mocked, feminism movement. With the help of his father, Alderman, he was elected Mayor of Cork County at the tender age of 19. It proved to be just the catalyst that young Thompson needed, as the instant immersion to the archaic landowner dominated political scene propelled him to an exactly opposite line of thought, and he became a fierce critic of the system thereafter.

He developed a reputation as a social reformist, and at one time, was mocked as a ‘Red Republican’ by his political and intellectual opponents. His contemporaries and friends of the period was a veritable who’s who of the philosophical world. Heavyweights such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mills (whose theories on utilitarianism proved to be an integral part of Thompson’s personal philosophical leanings), Nicolas de Condorcet (the man behind Condorcet Jury Theorem, Condorcet Method and Condorcet Paradox, among others) and Thomas Malthus (whose Principles of Political Economy proved to be the final piece of the Thompson mental jigsaw).

The egalitarian Thompson, after a number of misses, finally came out with (take a deep breath), An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness; applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth, a revolutionary piece of work that is believed by many to be modern communism at its embryonic stage – the proto-communism.

In his book, Thompson, who termed himself as a social scientist (a field he himself fashioned), incorporated the utilitarian concept of “greatest good for the greatest number” in perfect conjunction with his groundbreaking form of political economy. As he elaborated on the flawed relationship between property owners and the have-nots, he also highlighted the rising incidences of the stockpiling of surplus labor (defined as output exceeding the laborers’ own economic and social requirements) by the elite, which deprives the opportunity to further enhance the wealth of a nation by shrinking the liquid economy and consequently, preventing economic growth that is proportionate to productivity growth.

He tendered a solution that abolished the inherent advantage of property owners by advocating the distribution of wealth directly correlating to the labor/productivity offered, and thus, transforming labor/productivity into a tangible asset. This shifts the earning powers in society from property owners to either the producers or suppliers of labor.

Above everything else, this is the main tenet behind Karl Marx’s Das Kommunistische Manifest (The Communist Manifesto).

3. Karl Heinrich Marx and the Emergence of the Communist State

Karl Marx is the name most commonly associated with communism, and is credited (or blamed) by most as the chief architect of modern communism (although, as previously discussed, William Thompson arguably deserves that moniker). Born in 1818 to a Jewish family in Prussia, Germany, Marx grew up in a deeply religious environment. He married at the age of 25 to Jenny von Westphalen and was blessed with seven children.

At the age of 17, Marx was sent to study Law at Bonn University. However, after a series of clashes, which culminated with him losing a duel (yes, a duel) and getting badly injured in the process, his father arranged for him to be transferred to Berlin University. The move proved to be a godsend for Marx, as he was surrounded by like-minded individuals more closely attuned to his natural predisposition, and he reveled in the intellectual atmosphere of his school and the city. One of his lecturers at the time, Professor Bruno Bauer, introduced Marx, along with his colleagues, to the works of the renowned German philosopher, George Hegel. Hegel will eventually turn out to be one of the most influential people in Marx’s life. Marx completed his doctorate there and took up a career in journalism after leaving Berlin University.

In the course of his studies, Marx was exposed to the works of William Thompson, and he was immediately attracted to the notion of political economy proposed by the latter. Similarly, writings from Joseph Déjacque and Thomas Hodgskin, two other notable social thinkers of the time, albeit with contrasting lines of thought, also proved to be crucial in Marx’s intellectual development.

Karl Marx and his daughter Jenny Longuet in 1869
Karl Marx and his daughter Jenny Longuet in 1869

However, deviating from the utilitarian essence of Thompson’s communism, Marx, whose worldview was shaped by his earlier exposure to Hegel, constructed a sociopolitical structure steeped in the historical aspect of societal class exploitation, weaving it alongside the labor/productivity tangibility model. His version of communism, while intrinsically sharing the same objectives with Thompson, was intent on tearing down the existing social class system, of which Marx was a very fierce critic. The historical exploitation of the labor class seemed to touch a raw nerve with Marx, and ensuring its ascendancy in the new political economy is a theme often emphasized by him in his subsequent works.

As the years rolled on, Marx’s communism developed another fundamental tenet – the rejection of organized religion from the sphere of political economy. Marx argued that the presence of religions act as a natural barrier to the complete emancipation of the working class, as religions do not accept the tangibility of labor, and instead, reward and demand subservience to the economically non-productive and meritless appointees of religious officialdom.  His ideas and concepts of statehood gathered pace, and more importantly, it began drawing admirers and fans.

In 1847, The Communist League, a quasi-revolutionary outfit which had outgrown its initial dream of a Utopian nation during its inception in 1836, commissioned Marx to develop a manual of sorts, a handbook if you will, that is capable of explaining the fundamental reasoning behind communism, as well as its objective and vision. It was envisioned that the manual would assist in furthering the agenda of the movement, or at the very least, disseminate information about communism to a broader audience. Never in their wildest dreams did they anticipate the impact the so-called manual would generate.

Marx accepted the commission, and with the assistance of League member Friedrich Engels, Marx wrote what is arguably the most influential political book of the modern era, Das Kommunistische Manifest (The Communist Manifesto), whose repercussions are felt even to this very day.

Marx’s Manifesto is essentially his own personal representation of communism within the confines of the guidelines provided by Engels and the League. It delved into the historical analyses of class struggles, of the skewed relationship between serfs and property owners, of the inherent interdependence and imbalance between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, of the silent class warfare and the flawed wealth distribution models. The Manifesto also exemplified the similarities and boundaries of socialism and communism, in that, socialism, in most cases, is the natural evolution of a post-capitalist society. The final product was universally acclaimed as a powerful and moving piece of literature, capable of suborning even the most jaded of readers.

With his wonderfully crafted revolutionary theory, couched in Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach’s natural theories and Hegel’s natural state of constant conflict, Marx was able to illustrate that nature rewards conflicts, and conflicts are nature’s favored method of progression.

Marx, in another moment of inspired brilliance, equates the oppressed proletarians as default communists, and in the process, bequeaths communism the role of its champion, in the guise of social, not personal power. Marx also advocated a borderless world, of a single unifying citizenship, and neutrality of traditions. In his words,

“The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word…… The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action of the leading civilized countries at least is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat. In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to.  In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.

A borderless, classless and united world, with communism helming its policies, culminating with the extinction of the bourgeois: this is Marx’s version of communism, and only a worldwide revolution will do the trick. After which, applying the main tenets of Das Kommunistische Manifest, a ten point roadmap, detailing a communist state principal policies, will ensure the long-term success of communism.

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. Centralization of credit in the banking apparatus of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralization 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 cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8.  Equal obligation of all to work and the establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all distinctions between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace around the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form and a combination of education with industrial production.

The bells have been rung, the clarions have been sounded, and communism began its initially stuttering, but progressively more confident march into the future.

4. The March of Communism

The lure of communism – equality, a level playing field, and economic justice – coupled with its revolutionary approach to regime change proved to be too tempting to resist, and after a few failed starts, the most notable  being the Utopian nationalists of Rhineland in Germany, communism finally found a solid foothold among the revolutionaries of Russia in the late 19th century.

Communism (or is it Marxism?) came of age in 1917 right after the First World War in the bloody October Revolution. The Bolsheviks (literally translates as the majority) overthrew the universally unpopular and oppressively feudalistic Tsarism of Russia with the principles of Marx’s communism firmly behind them.

Led by the charismatic Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik Party, renamed as the Communist Party of The Soviet Union (KPSS), established the Soyuz Sovietskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik (CCCP). The CCCP, or as it is more commonly known, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), was the first nation to fully embrace the tenets of Marx’s ideals of communism as part of the national agenda. This unheralded development proved to be alarming to the rest of the Western World,  not least because it presented the disenchanted minorities the world over with a credible, non-democratic means of gaining power.

In 1919, Lenin founded the Communist International (Comintern, Third International) to coordinate the international communist activities towards achieving the objective of the organization, which was,

“by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.”

In other words, Lenin intended to fully pursue Marx’s ideals of a borderless world, uniting all states under the control of one central government, ruled under the communist ideology while providing strategic, ideological, monetary as well as military assistance to Comintern member’ countries.

Several of the most notable labor, socialist and communist organizations in Europe (Hungarian Communist Workers’ Party, Communist Party of Latvia, Social Democratic and Labor Party of Bulgaria and even a few representatives from the United States), were among the earliest members of the Comintern. Memberships were strictly regulated by Lenin’s Twenty-one Conditions, a set of, well, conditions, that mirrors the identity of Lenin’s own KPSS.

The on-going Civil War in Russia at the time did not detract Lenin from his pursuit and the government, under the watchful eyes of the Bolsheviks, carried out major political, economic and social reforms in the country, hurriedly transforming the Soviet Union into a textbook version of the ideal communist state. Following Lenin’s demise in 1924, Joseph Stalin assumed leadership of the Party and the Soviet Union and 1928, and his arrival quickened the pace of Soviet/Communist expansion into Europe and the rest of the world.

By the end of World War II, the geopolitical landscape of the world had completely changed. Lenin’s adoption of Marx’s principles has matured into a fluid centralized cell system, with a presence in almost every notable corner of the globe, and has yielded, in conjunction with other factors, of course, the conversion to communism of over, at its height, one billion people in the world.

In 1922, Lenin famously proclaimed,

First we will take Eastern Europe, then the masses of Asia. We will encircle the last bastion of capitalism, the United States of America. We will not need to fight. It will fall as a ripe fruit into our hands… We must practice coexistence with other nations, until we are strong enough to take over by means of world revolution…. We are not pacifists. Conflict is inevitable. Great political questions can be solved only through violence…. It is inconceivable that Communism and capitalism can exist side by side. Inevitably one must perish.

Almost sixty years after that, communist and socialist regimes actually, for a brief period of time, became the dominant political system on earth. Thirty-six nations, alongside an additional 90 political parties under the auspices of the Comintern, were full-fledged members of the new political order of communism.

Europe: Russia (1917), Estonia (1940), Latvia (1940), Lithuania (1940), Albania (1940), Ukraine (1945), Yugoslavia (1945), Bulgaria (1946), Poland (1947), Romania (1947), East Germany (1947), Hungary (1948), Czechoslovakia (1948), Grenada (1979)

Asia: Mongolia (1945), North Korea (1948), China (1949), Tibet (1951), North Vietnam (1954), Burma (1974), South Vietnam (1975), Cambodia (1979), Laos (1975), Seychelles (1977), Afghanistan (1980).

Africa: Guinea (1958), Libya (1969), South Yemen (1969), Guyana (1970), Benin (1974),  Madagascar (1975), Angola (1976), Somalia (1976), Mozambique (1977), Ethiopia (1977), Congo (1979)

Americas: Cuba (1960)

5. Communism in America

As the Reds and their agents ran rampant in the political and national landscape of the Western world, there was a very noticeable climate of fear in the United States. The domino-like fall of democracies in Europe in favor of communism, and the constant taunting by officials from the Soviet Union, were stark reminders of the very real possibility of communism making inroads in America.

The revelation of a speech made by a former dean of Lenin School for Political Warfare, Dimitri Manuilski, who eventually became the Soviet Union Representative in the United Nations, as well as being elected Chairman of the United Nations Security Council, 1949, sent shivers down the back of everyone in Washington.

“War to the hilt between communism and capitalism is inevitable. Today, of course, we are not strong enough to attack. Our time will come in 30 to 40 years. To win, we shall need the element of surprise. The bourgeoisie will have to be put to sleep. Therefore, we shall begin by launching the most spectacular peace movement on record. There will be electrifying overtures and unheard of concessions. The capitalist countries, stupid and decadent, will rejoice to cooperate in their own destruction. They will leap at another chance to be friends. As soon as their guard is down, we will smash them with our clenched fist.”

This conflict was ideological, and as befitting its nature, both sides indulged in heavy propaganda, which escalated after World War II and finally took on the shape of the Cold War – the war that very nearly dragged humanity to extinction.

The Soviet Union had turned into the international boogeyman for Americans, and politicians were quick to take advantage of their anxiety by implementing numerous measures that were geared towards preventing the large-scale entry of communism into the country. The government created a siege mentality within the country, along with the good versus evil mindset. Subjective interpretation of a communist and/or sympathizers by government officials led to the massive dragnet that more often than not, included the innocents who were caught up in the tempest of the communist threat.

Most Americans have never been exposed to communism, so it was a simple matter to subvert their thinking and foster the enemy-image of communism on its believers and anyone even remotely connected to this most dangerous of menace.

The government’s offensive was lead by the legendary (some would say infamous) duo of J.Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Between the two of them, they perpetrated some of the most heinous civil rights violations ever in the history of the United States, comparable even to the recent war on terror-related scandals. Armed with the 1940 Alien Registration Act, which stipulates

Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so; or Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof – Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.”

Permanent residents above the age of 14 were also required to register themselves under the purvey of the Act, with broad-ranging questioning and interrogative powers accorded to Federal officials during said registrations.

To be fair, these flagrant violations of human rights were chiefly responsible for curbing the influence and propagation of communism and socialism during the period, but at the great cost of massive human rights violations. There are hundreds of documented cases of wrongful persecution of innocents, most often in the more liberal industries, such as entertainment and education. McCarthyism dominated the political landscape at the time and many good citizens were made scapegoats during the height of the ‘Red Scare’.

The frenzy tapered down somewhat towards the tail end of the 1950s, and despite the continued growth of communism, the political landscape of America was no longer as brittle and fragile as it was previously. The United States were looked upon by the rest of the non-communist world as the champion of democracy, and depended on them for leadership, moral compass and financial assistance in combating the spread of communism. This was perhaps the golden age of American diplomacy in the free world, despite it also being the most dangerous.

Fresh from its morale-boosting expansion in Eastern Europe and the Balkan region, the communist movement received an even bigger lift with its entry into Asia, with the conversion of China, the most populous nation in the world. The subsequent segregation of the Korean peninsula led to the entry of North Korea into the grouping, and along with the victorious Vietnamese, as well as the inclusions of a number of African regimes, the rest of the world was looking anxiously and fearfully at their almost inevitable progress.

America invested an incredible amount of funds and time towards countering the march of communism, and there were even sporadic proxy wars over the years. The Americans and the rest of the world probably release a collective sigh of relief that after the death of Stalin in 1953 when the moderate Nikita Khruschchev took over. Otherwise, the aggressive expansion of the Lenin years would have continued.

The communist world itself was not free from its own set of challenges. The increasingly strained economy of the Soviet Union, the ideological differences and leadership tussle between them and China, along with the evident constitutional failure and abuse of power in most communist nations, began to take its toll. Nevertheless, in the end, it was the collapse of the Soviet economy which proved to be the final straw. Deprived of the forces of the open market, the embryonic communist economy became severely imbalanced and set off a chain reaction of budget deficits, unemployment, inflation, and failing infrastructure.

Mikhail Gorbachev, in a last throw of the dice, initiated a number of policies aimed at rescuing the broken Soviet economy. Glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were the popular keywords at the time, but despite Gorbachev’s efforts, the Soviet economy fell to its knees after years of abuse, overspending, and poor/nonexistent fiscal policies.

The same domino effect that powered the rise of communism was mirrored in its demise. The Eastern European nations led the first wave of countries abandoning communism in favor of the open market. Not long after, the annexed and conquered republics of Soviet Union, emboldened by the giant’s fall from grace, seceded from the union. The Soviet’s fall from grace was incredibly quick, and exposed the long-hidden failures of their military driven economy.

President Gorbachev resigned as president not long after, and Boris Yeltsin took leadership of the ‘new’ country. Bereft of the Soviet’s support and patronage, communist regimes around the world were quickly overthrown. By the end of the 20th century, only China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba remain as communist nations.

Song of the day: Nena – 99 Red Balloons

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