Communism: A theory and system of social and political organization that was a major force in world politics for much of the 20th century. As a political movement, communism sought to overthrow capitalism through a workers’ revolution and establish a system in which property is owned by the community as a whole rather than by individuals. In theory, communism would create a classless society of abundance and freedom, in which all people enjoy equal social and economic status. In practice, communist regimes have taken the form of coercive, authoritarian governments that cared little for the plight of the working class and sought above all else to preserve their own hold on power.
The idea of a society based on common ownership of property and wealth stretches far back in Western thought.
In its modern form, communism grew out of the socialist movement of 19th-century Europe. At that time, Europe was undergoing rapid industrialization and social change. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for creating a new class of poor, urban factory workers who labored under harsh conditions, and for widening the gulf between rich and poor. Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels. Like other socialists, they sought an end to capitalism and the exploitation of workers. But whereas some reformers favored peaceful, longer-term social transformation, Marx and Engels believed that violent revolution was all but inevitable; in fact, they thought it was “predicted by the scientific laws of history.” They called their theory “scientific socialism,” or communism. In the last half of the 19th century the terms socialism and communism were often used interchangeably. However, Marx and Engels came to see socialism as merely an intermediate stage of society in which most industry and property were owned in common but some class differences remained. They reserved the term communism for a final stage of society in which class differences had disappeared, people lived in harmony, and government was no longer needed.
The meaning of the word communism shifted after 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party seized power in Russia. The Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a repressive, single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies. The Communists formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) from the former Russian Empire and tried to spark a worldwide revolution to overthrow capitalism. Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, turned the Soviet Union into a dictatorship based on total state control of the economy and the suppression of any form of opposition. As a result of Lenin’s and Stalin’s policies, many people came to associate the term communism with undemocratic or totalitarian governments that claimed allegiance to...