The Britannica Encyclopedia of Communism
The early Christians practiced a simple form of communism as a way of expressing their contempt for worldly possessions. Later, monastic orders encouraged their members to share their meager possessions with the poor.
Anarchists, including William Godwin in England and Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin in Russia (though they spent much of their lives in exile), advocated communal ownership of property and the abolition of the state.
Early visions of communism
While the term “communism” did not emerge until the 1840s, visions of a society that could be considered communist have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, envisioned in his Republic a state where a ruling class of philosophically trained “guardians” shared property—even spouses and children—with all citizens. Later, English humanist Thomas More portrayed in his Utopia a city-state where money was abolished and citizens shared all property.
In the 19th century, as industrialization accelerated and poverty in the West worsened, socialist and communist ideas gained currency. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto sounded a call for proletarian revolution that would lead to the overthrow of capitalism and its hierarchies. Their motto, “Workers of all countries, unite!” became a rallying cry.
Marx and Engels feared the injustice of a world where the rich exploited the poor while maintaining their own wealth. They also viewed the current system of production as unsustainable. They envisioned a future in which all citizens would participate equally in the productive process and share in the ownership of the products of their labor—from food to education, from medical care to cultural facilities.
These early leftist visions converged on some key elements, including social equality (in the form of the right to work but not property); economic planning, industrialization, electrification, and agricultural collectivization; free education; a combination of educational and industrial production; social and cultural facilities available to all; and public housing.
These visions were often linked to a rejection of traditional religion and a belief in the power of science. They also reflected the widespread recognition that government should play a constructive role in securing economic and social justice. By 1920, rules set by the Comintern allowed communist parties to be formed afresh or else by splitting existing socialist or other social democratic groups and being accountable to Moscow rather than their domestic constituencies.
Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) developed a theory of revolution that formed the basis for modern communism. It was a materialist view of history that viewed changes in society mainly through economic factors and predicted a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the development of a classless communist society. Marxist ideas also formed the theoretical foundation of the socialist movement and influenced many strands of heterodox economics.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Europe experienced a technological and economic revolution that raised productivity and generated great wealth for factory owners. However, those gains benefited only a tiny bourgeoisie minority while millions of workers struggled to live in poverty and disease. Marx and his contemporaries were convinced that these class struggles, which had dominated human history, were leading inevitably to the collapse of capitalism and the rise of a new social order in which all could enjoy prosperity through collective ownership of the means of production.
Marx and his followers, known as Marxists or proletarians, favored the formation of a government that combined executive, legislative and judicial functions. They also favored the use of openly elected representatives, which they called soviets. These bodies, based on worker councils, would form the core of the new governing structure. The legislature, or supreme state institution, would be the organ that oversaw these democratically chosen bodies and could not be prevented from interfering in any of the other state institutions unless expressly prohibited by law.
After the deaths of Marx and Engels in 1883 and 1895, the international following for their ideas split into two camps. One group, called revisionists, favored a peaceful and gradual transition to socialism. The other, which became the proletarian leadership of the Russian Revolution in 1917, remained true to the original vision of violent revolution. A third group, which embraced the ideas of both camps, was called council communists, and they advocated the formation of a governing body, or federation, made up of workers’ councils.