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- Evolution and Actualization of the Idea of Communism
- Communism as a Type of Regime
- Communism as a Political Organization
- Communism as an Ideal
- Communism and Today’s World
After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seemed that communism belonged only to the past and was a more appropriate subject of research for historians than for political scientists. This impression is wrong. Communism is directly relevant to political science, not only because communist regimes still exist in Cuba, China, and elsewhere in Asia, but also because an adequate account of communism must include an explanation of why it is attractive or, on the contrary, why it has failed. An understanding of communism must also include an examination of its future as well as its legacy in former communist countries that are now democracies. this research paper addresses these topics by analyzing communism as a theory, a type of regime, and a political organization. As a political theory, communism has changed over the years but has always been significant to some philosophers and activists, and it remains an important point of reference in critiques of capitalism and current political debates. In this respect, it is necessary to distinguish between the idea and its political realizations.
Evolution and Actualization of the Idea of Communism
The idea of communism is a very old one that has its roots in the vision of a society based on the absolute equality of human conditions and the elimination of individual enrichment. It is present in the works of many thinkers from Plato through the 18th-century utopians, the Soviet analysts, and some contemporary theoreticians. The terms communism and communist were first used in France during the 11th century to designate the common practices, interests, and rights of some peasants. During the French Revolution, some authors used the word communism in its more modern sense of a general sharing of goods in a regime established by a revolutionary process. Others, for example, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Wilhem Weitling, and Moses Hess, used the term to designate utopian projects of societies based on a new system of exchanges and distribution. But it was around the mid-19th century that the idea of communism became more widespread. The creation of the Communist League by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1847 and the publication of their Communist Manifesto in 1848 marked a turning point in the evolution of the communist idea as embodied in a political structure and metamorphosed into a coherent doctrine that, despite Marx’s protests, quickly took on a religious and dogmatic dimension. The word communism came to refer to a general project, a political action, and a political ideology presented as a real and powerful science, different from reformism. For Marx, communism meant not only social equality and the end of private property but also the necessity of a revolution based on class struggle directed by an organized proletariat that would completely destroy capitalism and the bourgeoisie, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. After this first step, it would be possible to establish a perfected new order with collective ownership, a progressive disappearance of the state, and the dissolution of social classes.
Prior to 1917, there was confusion within the international labor movement concerning the relationship between socialism and communism. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin gave the name Communist to the Bolshevik party, and with the creation of the Third International in 1919, the distinction between the Communist Party and social-democratic and socialist parties was strengthened. Lenin and his comrades set themselves up as Marx’s only heirs, delegitimizing the numerous other interpretations of Marxism.
Marxism-Leninism became the main and strongest codification of the doctrine of communism during the 20th century, with the Soviet Union presented as a model. Thus, the Soviet Union can be considered the first incarnation of communism; however, after World War II, other nations, such as Mao Zedong’s China, Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, created their own versions of communist regimes.
Communism as a Type of Regime
Because of the existence of these countries who claimed their affiliation to communism and Marxism, communism also designates a type of regime. Usually, they show important specificities in terms of how they implemented the communist program and in their respective historical, national, and social environments. However, there were also commonalities; in particular, the establishment of a communist regime was in each case followed by an intense period of violence and terror marked by mass crimes, genocides, trials, deportation, and the creation of detention and concentration camps for all political, cultural, and religious “enemies” as well as bloody purges of opponents inside the party. The prime example was the Soviet Union under Lenin and then under Stalin, until the latter’s death in 1953. One of the grimmest examples of communist terror was in Kampuchea (Cambodia), where from 1975 to 1978, the communist Khmer Rouge was responsible for the death of an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million people.
Often, a period of acute repression in a communist regime was followed by a relaxation of the repression; this was the case in Russia and in East and Central Europe after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization in 1956. However, during this period, there remained a restriction of liberties and a general fear based in part on memories of past repression. Other common features are the following:
- the establishment of one-party rule or a hegemonic and preeminent communist party, with some insignificant allies who keep alive the fiction of plurality, as in some of the Eastern and Central European countries after 1945;
- the monopoly of all activities, including political, economic, social, intellectual, and cultural activities, and of the media, who were used for intensive propaganda;
- an emphasis on the importance of ideology for the party and for the whole population;
- the rigorous control and surveillance of society;
- the endeavor to create a “new man,” who was ideologically convinced, completely devoted to the party, and willing to sacrifice his life;
- the centralization of all powers, especially in countries with great cultural, ethnic, religious, or geographical diversity; and
- the preeminent affirmation of the leadership, which may lead to an organized cult as, for instance, in the cases of Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, or Castro.
During the years 1920 to 1930 and after World War II, these features sparked polemics about the nature of communist regimes and their classification: What were they exactly? Were they a new version of classical dictatorship or a variety of authoritarian systems, or did they belong to totalitarianism? The debate about this last notion was always fierce. Supporters of the totalitarian concept insist that it is as valid for communism as for fascism or Nazism. Some, such as Hannah Arendt and Raymond Aron, thought that, after 1956, the Soviet Union, for instance, became a post-totalitarian regime or an authoritarian one that experienced a deep political and economic crisis, resulting in a reduction of its attraction. Other specialists emphasized the permanence of the essential characteristics of totalitarianism from the beginning to the end but recognized that there was alternation between the extreme and the more relaxed forms of totalitarianism. In contrast, other scholars reject the pertinence of the totalitarian concept for communism and criticize the validity of comparing it with fascism. For them, totalitarianism is too wide and schematic a concept for comparison, because it does not take into account the differences between fascism, Nazism, and communism, as well as those between communist countries. These critics also argue that the concept of totalitarianism does not take into account the spaces of autonomy that were operating despite the weight of oppression. In any case, communist regimes also served as a model for dictatorships elsewhere.
Communism as a Political Organization
Communism also refers to an important mutation of political organization. Marx spoke in favor of the importance and the necessity of a communist party but without giving precise definitions or recommendations about its structure. It was Lenin who described more precisely the process of building such a party, in his book What Is to Be Done? published in 1902. Lenin is the inventor of the first prototype of an ideological party, composed of a vanguard of professional revolutionaries, with a military and secret service component, publishing a newspaper conceived as a key element of the party’s activity, propaganda, and ideological formation. This party was to be ruled such that there was complete submission of the inferior echelons of the party to the superior ones, a strong and centralized authority of the leadership, absolute discipline (whereby the minority had to obey the majority), and, in democratic countries, total control of the members of parliament by the central leadership of the party. This famous invention, called democratic centralism by Lenin, was completely counter to the classical concept of a mass social-democratic party. The party also had to form specialized mass organizations for attracting a variety of people. Through their propaganda, the ideas of communism could be spread more easily, and they could also be used as a channel of recruitment for the party. Trade unions were considered a decisive influence on the working class, but as a transmission agent, they had to be subject to the party’s orders. This specific communist party was supposed to be adapted to the conditions of political struggle under tsarist Russia. But after the victorious Soviet revolution, Lenin and Trotsky decided to generalize the model and impose this organization on the new communist parties all over the world. They also created another important rupture with the internationalist working class tradition by inventing a new Communist International, with its powerful center in Moscow. The Communist International was conceived as a world party with one unique goal: to make revolution on a global scale. In reality, with Stalin’s leadership from the end of the 1920s, the Communist International had to defend the Soviet Union against the supposed attacks of “imperialism.”
The party was completely Stalinized and became monolithic. In other countries, the communist party tried to transform itself into a mass party open to different social categories, for example intellectuals, but with a prominence of working-class members at all levels. In some countries, and especially in China under Mao’s authority, priority was given to the peasants. The military had to consist of disciplined members, courageous and always ready to defend the party’s positions and, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives, as was the case, for instance, during World War II in the Resistance, during some civil wars (in Spain 1936-1939, in Greece 1946-1949), and in the national liberation movement in Vietnam. The party was attractive because it offered the only possibility for political, social, or symbolic promotion. In the course of time, the ideology was no longer an element of faith but just empty rhetoric, with its sole aim being to legitimize those who were in power. The party was a party-state where the state was only an appearance; the reality of power, leadership, and decisions was under its control. At the international level, the communist parties had been organized from 1919 into the Communist International, the so-called Komintern, which was self-dissolved in 1943. This organization was also Stalinized from the end of the 1920s and had to respect the orders from Moscow. The leadership of the Communist International, directly under Stalin’s authority, decided the strategy of each party, con-trolled the internal life of the party, and selected its leaders. After World War II, the Kominform was created as a successor organization. The Soviet party, with the support of the East European parties, tried to maintain the unity of world communism and the centrality of the Soviet Union by organizing international communist conferences, organizing formal meetings among parties, and providing material (even financial) support. The Soviet party tried to structure this world communist system to achieve its expansion over all continents. But it was confronted with a trend toward autonomy and, sometimes, a defense of national interests (e.g., with the Romanians and the Polish). Some parties decided to oppose Soviet primacy and to split communist unity, such as the Yugoslavs in 1948 and the Chinese and Albanian Communists in the 1960s. In the West, communist Italians after 1956, the French in the 1970s, and then the Spanish soon after tried hard to invent a form of Eurocommunism that emphasized the importance of democracy and personal freedoms and rejected dictatorship. However, they always defended Soviet superiority when confronted with imperialism and capitalism.
Communism as an Ideal
The theoretical, political, and sociological interpretation of communism has always divided the scientific community. Communism has been interpreted as a contemporary form of utopia that would fulfill the classical quest for happiness in a perfect and pacified world and give expression to the “passion of equality” that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as inseparable from democratization. Many thinkers have argued that although communist regimes vigorously repressed religion, communism itself took the form of a secular or political religion. In Europe, communism had more success in Catholic and Orthodox countries and in some Jewish communities than among Protestants. Where Islam was the dominant religion, communism generally failed to take hold; however, it prospered in Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian countries. Thus, communism could be seen as a secular substitute for traditional religions and its establishment, the result of a transfer of faith from classical religions to this new one.
Communism was embraced by many different sections of the population, from the uneducated to intellectuals, who found in its beliefs a basis for political involvement. Even though it was closely associated with the protection of Soviet interests, communism also may be seen to involve a commitment to internationalism as the foundation of world fraternity. However, communism could also strengthen nationalistic values, as it did in some countries that were fighting for their independence, such as Vietnam or Cambodia. Such ambivalence existed on other topics as well. Communism succeeded as a movement determined to practice violence against dictatorships but also within democracies (as the communist parties did from the 1920s to the 1940s); yet, at the same time, especially in the West, communism presented itself as a peaceful movement allied with Catholic and Protestant associations and independent personalities who were not properly affiliated to a party but were strongly committed to leftist values. Obviously, in theory, communism was a child of the Age of Enlightenment, with its ideals of equality and its aspiration to emancipation and democracy. But in practice, although there were differences between communism and totalitarian movements such as fascism and Nazism, communism translated to dictatorship. In Western countries, communist parties criticized the “bourgeois” and “formal” democracies in the name of a future and perfect democracy. After World War II and their active participation in antifascist resistance or anti-colonialist movements, communist parties—the most powerful of which were in Western Europe— gradually accepted democratic principles and made some changes in their own organizations.
But the main question is whether communism represented an archaic political phenomenon or a modern one. Communism, as an affirmation of the values of a classless society, can be seen as archaic because of its rejection of capitalism, the market economy, individualism, and liberal and representative democracy. Communism could also be presented as a specific authoritarian form of economic and social modernization developed by a ruling communist party—a modernization that was a complete disaster everywhere. However, in democratic countries where strong communist parties existed, as in France or Italy, their presence and the protection they gave to the poorest people could be seen as providing a foundation for the modern welfare state.
Communism and Today’s World
Communist regimes no longer exist in Russia and in Eastern Europe. Efforts to reform communism in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev failed. Western European communist parties are in decline or have changed their names and identities. Communism as a whole has lost its momentum. But it is still alive in some countries as a totalitarian regime, as in North Korea, or in the form of coexistence between a market economy and the domination of a single party, as in China. Communism has left an important legacy. Communist domination did leave its mark on wel-fare in countries that have undergone a transition to democracy, which explains the nostalgia for equality and social protection. In some countries, Communists have maintained a good reputation among the public because the collective memory associates them with the social class struggles of the past and with antifascism. Communist doctrine itself is in a deep crisis, but some authors find an actuality in Marxism. Some elements of the communist culture are still alive in the form of anticapitalism, aspiration to utopian ideals, the search for a radical alternative, contestation of the reality of democracy, and hostility to reformism. In other words, communism is perhaps finished as a political centralized and authoritarian organized movement but remains alive and present as an aspiration.
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