What is Communism?

  1. Describe the two groups that make up society as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels see it.
  2. According to Marx and Engels, how would communism arise from capitalism?
  3. Taken as a whole, no society in the world today practices either pure capitalism or pure communism.  Consider your own society – what elements are more capitalist, and what elements more closely resemble communism?
  4. The philosopher John Locke wrote that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”  How do you think Marx would respond to this idea?
  5. Evaluate the pros and cons of communism – who would be better off?  Who would be worse off? 
  6. What are some potential problems that might arise under a communist system?
  7. How does Leninism differ from Marx’s theory of communism?
The hammer and sickle symbol of communism came into being during the Russian Revolution.  It symbolized the alliance between industrial workers and rural peasants who together make up the working class.

Communism a movement whose ultimate goal is a society structured upon the common ownership of the means of production (factories, technology, farms) and the absence of social classesmoney, and the state.  More simply put, communism is the idea that basic needs – food, shelter, healthcare – should be shared evenly between every member of society, and that common people should look past artificial divisions like nationality, race, or personal wealth in pursuit of the common betterment of all mankind.  

Communism stands most directly in contrast to capitalism, a system which arose in the early 1800s alongside the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism is a form of social and economic organization that assigns access to basic needs according to an individual’s ability to pay for them, which ultimately divides people into categories of haves and have-nots – those that can pay for food, and those who cannot; those who can afford to buy a house, and those who cannot; those who can afford to go to the doctor, and those who cannot.

According to communist theory, capitalism is a system that unfairly rewards a small, greedy group of wealthy business owners, usually referred to as the bourgeoisie. This capitalist class is a minority who derives its unfair share of society’s wealth by exploiting the poverty of the working class, or proletariat – the class of urban factory workers who labor for subsistence-level wages under often-hazardous conditions and who make up the majority within society.  Think of the CEO worth billions of dollars while his lowest level employs work for minimum wage and don’t receive adequate healthcare.

The core philosophies of communism were developed and popularized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who published their famous pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, in 1848 as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing throughout much of Europe.  Marx and Engels saw history as a continuous conflict between the capitalist and working classes.

A monument to Karl Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels in Berlin, Germany.  The park was created by the authorities of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1986.

Marx predicted that this situation would ultimately be resolved through a social revolution in which the majority working class would overthrow the minority capitalist class – and the capitalist system itself.  The triumphant workers, he believed, would redistribute wealth and the means of production equally among themselves – and all human beings would be entitled to an equal share of what they collectively produced.

As Marx put it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

There would be no more rich or poor, no more upper or lower class – even nations and racial distinctions would melt away – and all would receive an equal share, while hard work and selflessness would become the most exalted virtues to which anyone could strive.

Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite! – Karl Marx

It should be noted that Marx was only a theorist, not an active revolutionary himself.  Aside from writing and publishing, he never took any concrete steps to enact these ideas, which he believed would happen when the majority of the working class recognized just how unfair capitalism was…  That no matter how many extra hours they worked, no matter how many 2% cost-of-living raises they secured, they would always be denied a fair share of the wealth that they produced through their labor.

This condition has never really been met.

Image result for communist poster
“Smash the Old World. Establish the New World” (People’s Republic of China, 1967)

In the real world, every large-scale communist revolution that has come to pass has been led by a minority within a society still largely committed to capitalism.  Too often, communist revolutions the world over have been carried out without the consent of a country’s working class – they have not been true popular revolutions. In Russia, China, and Cuba, communist reforms have typically been enacted from the top of society down, instead of from the bottom up, by popular demand, as Marx predicted.

A bust of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, the first communist nation on earth. (Moscow, 2017)

This has led to a great deal of violence, oppression, famine, and hardship as communist leaders have attempted to force a communist revolution upon a society that was not ready for it, a philosophy known as Leninism, after the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who brought communism to a largely unprepared Russia in 1917.

Leninism’s willingness to force communism upon a society “for its own good and by any means necessary” has tarnished the legacy of Marxism, a philosophy that at its heart aspired to elevate humanity beyond its selfish tenancies toward greed, poverty, war, and conflict.

(Click to enlarge)

Activities

  1. Create a students’ paradise in your own classroom.  When you walked in today, your classroom was likely organized according to a capitalist model, in which each individual student controls his or her own school supplies. Create an inventory of all of the supplies brought to class today – the sum total of all of the pencils, pens, erasers, calculators, notebooks, etc…  If these supplies were divided evenly between all classmates, how many of each would an individual student receive?  Which classmates are better off under this new distribution of supplies?  Which are worse off?  Which system is more fair?  Which system would lead to a more productive classroom?
  2. Marx once famously wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”  Unpack this metaphor and explain why Marx would be critical of religion’s role in the lives of the working class.  What else might serve a similar role in the modern day?  Create a communist-style propaganda poster warning your peers about the dangers of this other opium of the people.
  3. Marx was moved to develop his theories after witnessing the vast gulf between the rich and the poor during the Industrial Revolution.  He was appalled at the way the working class suffered – working long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay that often failed to provide them with a stable or dignified quality of life.  Research the ways that poverty manifests itself in your community and report back to your class.  Possible starting questions include:
    • How many people are homeless in my community?  What kind of options do they have for shelter, food, and medical care?
    • What does the phrase “working poor” mean?  How many people in my community fit this definition?  Who are their employers?
    • How does my government work to meet the needs of the poor?  What are the conditions in my state to qualify for medical, food, or unemployment assistance?
    • What charities are at work in my community, filling the roles that capitalism and the government don’t?
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