5.2.3 Communism

Étienne Schmitt

The third division distinguishes the “revolutionary” currents for which the break with capitalism necessarily involves a revolution, from the “reformist” currents which aspire to transform social and political institutions by peaceful means. This division shaped in the 19th century and took on considerable importance with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Communist International (Third International) in 1919.

Socialism or Communism?

What is communism and how does it differ from socialism? Before the creation of the Third International in 1919, there was no clear distinction between socialism and communism. On a conceptual level, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explain communism is the ultimate stage of socialism describing an ideal society, emancipated from capitalism and any kind of alienation. In fact, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels rarely use the term “communism” in their writings, especially after the League of Communists – which they joined in 1847 and for which they wrote the political program: The Manifesto of the Communist Party(pdf) (1848/1969) – was dissolved in 1852. Moreover, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – as well as their direct successors commonly called “Marxists” – did not define themselves as Communists. Karl Marx qualified his ideology of “scientific socialism”: socialism based on a scientific analysis of human societies. Therefore, it is difficult to speak of communism before 1919.

The Bolshevik Revolution and Its Consequences

After the Russian Revolution in 1917 led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (known as Lenin), he achieves a paradigmatic shift. Indeed, Lenin develops the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat (see section 5.1.1 Concepts of Socialism) theorized by Karl Marx, proposing a proletarian state to establish a communist society. Lenin suggests that this state can be called communist “as the means of production becomes common property, the word ‘communism’ is also applicable here” (Lenin, 1918/1999), adding that it is certainly not an “integral communism”. Thus, in the Lenin’s view, a political regime can be qualified as “communist” even if it is imperfect. Moreover, Lenin wrote in his pamphlet What Is to Be Done?(pdf) (1902/1961) that the proletarian revolution must be organized on a vanguard, a party of professional revolutionaries, that pursues the objective of taking power. Communism is no longer a regime or a state; it is a party. Serving to justify the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Soviets, Lenin’s interpretation was highly criticized, including from Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Kautsky and other Karl Marx’s heirs called “orthodox Marxists.” According to them, the revolution must emanate only from the social movement, and communism is the final and perfect stage of socialism. Nonetheless, Lenin had succeeded in imposing the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution was the beginning of a world proletarian revolution. According to him, the Bolshevik Revolution was the concrete perspective of communism. Other revolutions, such as in China (1949), Cuba (1961), Vietnam (1954) and Yugoslavia (1945), led to the creation of peculiar communist states. Despite their differences, all were inspired by this Marxism-Leninism theory monopolized by a single party centered on a vanguard, the internationalism of the workers’ movement, the dictatorship of the proletariat and collectivization of the production means.

Communism Today

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only five states remained officially communist: Cuba, China, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea, and several states such as Bangladesh, Moldova, Nepal, Nicaragua, Guyana, or Tanzania are or were led by a communist party. Most of these communist countries – except North Korea – adopted a capitalism-oriented model: China in 1978 with the “socialist market economy”, Laos in 1979, and Vietnam in 1986. Cuba implemented capitalistic reforms only in 2018, but its domestic market remains closed. The shrinking of the communist area of influence and the adoption of capitalism by communist countries ensured the decline of communist parties in Western countries. Like Podemos in Spain or Die Linke in Germany, most of these parties have changed their name and political stances, withdrawing any reference to communism or to Marxism to fulfill to a renewed radical leftism.

What is Communism?

In the Karl Marx perspective, communism designates the ultimate stage when socialism is reached. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, communism designates a current of socialism based on the Lenin perspective conceiving that a vanguard revolutionary proletarian party can achieve communism, and a state can be called communist whether it collectivizes means of production.

Historical Divisions of Socialism


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Étienne Schmitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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