A political ideology which has as its central tenet the communal ownership of property used in productive processes, and thereby the abolition of private property. While many social and religious communities based on communally shared property have been recorded throughout history, contemporary communism is associated with the theoretical writings of Karl Marx.
In these writings, communism is seen as the final stage in human historical development, a process which sees societies move through feudalism, capitalism, and socialism (a transitional stage involving the dictatorship of the proletariat) before reaching this highest stage.
According to Marx, social class (the fundamental social division) is determined by an individual's economic relationship to the means of production. In a society in which productive property is communally owned, every person has the same relationship to the means of production, and is thus of the same social class. Communal ownership therefore logically entails the abolition of social class.
Similarly, because the State is seen by Marx as an instrument of class oppression, with the abolition of classes the function performed by the State is no longer necessary and, as a result, Marx predicted that it would 'wither away'. The transition to socialism and then communism was to be brought about by the overthrow of the capitalist system and the seizing of the means of production by the proletariat (or working class). This new socio-economic system would allow for the liberation of human potential and for the development of a new social ethic of 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'.
Marx's theories have been developed and adopted by many communist and socialist parties, and these developments have been used to legitimize both the policies and the internal organization of these parties. Thus, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), initially under the leadership of Lenin and later of Stalin, reinterpreted Marxism as, first, Marxism- Leninism and then Stalinism.
The major features of this reinterpretation were the communalization of property through the agency of the State, and the development of the doctrine of democratic-centralism. This doctrine meant that the CPSU became a highly centralized, monolithic, and secretive organization bearing little resemblance to the spontaneous, decentralized forms of organization envisaged under communism by Marx.
Under Stalin, the party became an instrument in the development of a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship. During the first half of the 20th-c, the CPSU provided the ideological lead for European communist parties, with only those which accepted this lead being able to join the Third International (established in 1919).
Latterly, however, the CPSU's leadership was both questioned and challenged for a variety of reasons. These include the economic inefficiencies associated with rigid central planning, and the neo-imperialist military crushing of attempts to liberalize communist regimes in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). The emergence of a challenge to Soviet-style communist rule in Poland, which involved demands for political reforms and the lack of any military response by the USSR, further diminished the leading role of the CPSU.
Outside the communist world, some parties, such as the Italian Communist Party, had developed a new variant, Eurocommunism, which contained more elements drawn from social democracy than from Marxism- Leninism, as a response to the changing nature and aspirations of the working class in advanced industrial societies.
The fall from a position of dominance of the Communist Party in Poland and the holding of multiparty elections was the first of a series of events which led to the institution of political reform and free elections throughout Eastern Europe, and also in the USSR under the leadership of Secretary-General Gorbachev. This change was symbolized best by the breaching and demolition of the Berlin Wall, a structure which had stood for the division of Europe into two ideologically opposed, armed camps.
Following the failure of a military coup against Gorbachev in 1991, in which the CPSU was implicated, the Party was banned. Although the ban was later declared unconstitutional by the Russian Supreme Court, following the breakup of the former USSR, it lost all hold on power in the country which it ruled absolutely for 70 years.
There remain a number of countries in which communist parties continue to rule, most notably the People's Republic of China, North Korea, and Cuba. However, even in these the system is showing signs of strain, and in China the aging rulers (adherents to the variant of communism known as Maoism) had to resort to force to crush demands for reform in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1992. Only in North Korea does a fully-blown totalitarian democratic-centralist regime continue in power.
The experience of communist regimes over the seven and a half decades following the Russian Revolution of 1917 gives rise to two types of assessment of applied Marxism. On the one hand there are those who say that Marxism has failed because of its economic inefficiencies and because, contrary to theory, communist states have seen an inexorable growth in the power of the State rather than the withering away predicted by Marx.
On the other hand there are those who say that the regimes that call themselves communist are not really Marxist, but rather some dictatorial misinterpretation of Marxism and that, therefore, Marxism has not yet been tested in practice.