What is Communism?

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
  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. (Berlin, Germany, 2007.)

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, Russia, 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)


  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?

Fallen Monument Park in Moscow is a repository of communist era sculptures. (Moscow, Russia, 2018.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

  • A Guided Tour of Moscow is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms.  The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of Russian history and culture circa 2017 and is meant to present these topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring Moscow on their own.  Explore Red Square and Gorky Park, commute through the Moscow Metro, and participate in the 2017 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.
  • Live From Moscow, 2018:

Awards for “The Dubai Mall” Lesson at Openendedsocialstudies.org

The University of Arizona Center for Middle Eastern Studies has recognized the Openendedsocialstudies lesson The Dubai Mall, Sharia Law, and Social Norms as part of its annual lesson plan competition.  The lesson is adaptable for use in both middle school and high school classrooms, and uses the rules and code of conduct posted at this fabulous mall’s entrance to introduce students to norms of the Arab world.

How and why do social norms and laws in Muslim majority countries differ from those in countries like the United States?  Would students still want to visit greatest mall in the world if it meant following a different set of rules than they’re used to?

Check out our ever growing (and always free!) set of lessons, resources, and activities covering the Middle East.


unedited thoughts on our culture of violence. (on the anniversary of Sandy Hook, but sadly evergreen)

As a teacher, I wrestle with the fact that my place of work – an American grade school, ostensibly a place for nurturing and shaping the minds of young people – has become a focal point for the kind of violence that would likely be called a crime against humanity, an atrocity, a war crime, if anyone had bothered to declare a war.  I’ve reflected on it, and decided that if a shooter walked into my classroom, I am resigned to die if I can in any way save the students in my care.  How messed up is it that nearly two decades after Columbine a teacher in “the greatest country on Earth” has to mentally prep that way before a day of work?

I have a pretty vivid memory of writing the following piece during my lunch break as a preschool teacher, as news of the Sandy Hook shooting (five years ago today) spilled out.  Sadly, it stands unedited and evergreen today.   

when i see the four-year-olds at the preschool where i teach playing with a batman action figure or looking at a spider-man book and talking about how they kill bad guys, i feel really uncomfortable.  even when i correct them and tell them that spider-man and batman don’t kill people, it feels pretty lame.  i’m splitting hairs here, because it’s still a whole culture that from a very early age glorifies violence, desensitizing us to the real effects.  it makes me even more squeamish, because i know i was exactly like them at that age.


i guess that should give me hope that they won’t grow up completely complicit and complacent in our violent society – but i feel like i am also a minority.  americans – and american men especially – are not meant to be sensitive and reflective.  we are not made to turn the other cheek, unless it’s to wind up for the next punch.  we are not meant to be peace-loving,


so then i try to pinpoint the pivotal moments in my own evolution, the moments and influences and realizations that turned me.  i want to say it was 9-11, but i remember getting shouted down by my teacher and classmates that day when i said that i hoped the US would respond thoughtfully and reasonably to the attacks – that we might reflect on how our own violence and aggression in pursuit of our self-interest had lead us to this juncture.  i was told that sometimes we were confronted with a situation that left us with no alternative – we had no choice, we just had to kick some ass and show the world we were tough.


or self-destructive.


so already, at 9-11, there was something in me primed.  i know watching the war in iraq fanned those flames of outrage in me.  and i think, it’s burned more intensely in me as i’ve grown older.


there’s a part of me that wants to read the ultraviolent films of tarantino as a burlesque commentary of the rest of our society.  with all the blood and shocking cartoonishness of that violence, i want to think that he is asking his audience to be disturbed.  because we are so used to seeing characters on screen shot or blown up.  it has become a casual violence, and we think nothing of seeing the hero take a bullet in the leg and keep on running.  this is absurd, whereas tarantino’s absurd violence jars us as if the blood spurting out of his bullet wounds was actually splashing us in our faces.  but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.  maybe it’s just simple exploitation, and not an effort to truly disturb us – to ask us to really reflect on what we so unthinkingly consume in our pop culture junk food diet.


i’ve been reading a three volume history of the third reich.  the nazis cared a lot about culture and propaganda.  they called politics the art of shaping a formless mass into a people whose culture and values were focused around a singular set of societal goals, the same way an artist arranges raw materials into a finished statement.  and one of their aims was to restructure german society toward aggression, to constrain the very possibilities of action, so that conflict and struggle seemed to be the only reasonable framework through which to view the world.  coexistence and peace were not even alternatives, because they would literally never occur to people, any more than a light bulb or an automobile would occur to people a thousand years ago.  and they attempted this shift on so many fronts, right down to the language they used in press releases, speeches, and news articles – everything was a struggle overcome, a brutal challenge, a triumph of will. in that case it was deliberately conceived, deigned from the top. our situation seems to be a case of social one-up-manship, where we’re all trying to bluster our way to cool detachment in the face of the the truly alarming world we find ourselves living in.


i know that one reason i became a teacher is because i want to provide young people with a vocabulary that includes other words, like communicate, cooperate, compromise, coexist.


all those supposedly weak words we are taught to cringe at, at least subconsciously.


someone has to use those dirty words.  and it doesn’t take superpowers.

The Psychology of a Refugee Crisis

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What are refugees, why are they in European countries like Bulgaria, and how is the United Nations involved? Continue reading “Refugees and Human Rights in Bulgaria”

The Dubai Mall, Sharia Law, and Social Norms: No Short-Shorts, No PDA

This lesson was reported from:

Continue reading “The Dubai Mall, Sharia Law, and Social Norms: No Short-Shorts, No PDA”

Reform and Resistance: The Cuban Revolution Part II

“They talk about the failure of socialism, but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America?” – Fidel Castro

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Continue reading “Reform and Resistance: The Cuban Revolution Part II”

Open Ended Social Studies has the chapters that your world history textbook is missing

What is the root cause of our world’s troubles?  

If you ask me, it’s not a trade imbalance or a terrorist threat.  If we’re talking about the problem that lies at the heart of everything, it’s got to be a severe, devastating lack of empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Continue reading “Open Ended Social Studies has the chapters that your world history textbook is missing”

For educators: Create an illustrated glossary of Nahuatl/English loan words

When you’re teaching from many textbooks, it’s easy to think of native societies as “the other” – the Aztec are conquered and swept aside, if they’re mentioned at all, and they appear from the perspective of their conquerors.  They didn’t even call themselves the Aztec, for that matter – they referred to themselves as the Mexica, a name lent to the modern nation, and often excluded from your textbooks to prevent confusion between the two among students.   Continue reading “For educators: Create an illustrated glossary of Nahuatl/English loan words”