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Mark Sandle

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Mark Sandle

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The twentieth century cannot be properly understood unless we understand communism: its origins, growth, demise and legacy. This brief overview of the history of communism challenges us to think about its role in shaping the contemporary world.

This book shows how the modern communist movement emerged out of radical millenarian movements of the Middle Ages and the English Civil War, becoming a mass movement of industrial society, seeking to overturn capitalism and replace it with a society of equality, justice, harmony and co-operation. It traces the growth of modern communism from its beginnings in the early nineteenth century to its position of global power at the end of the Second World War. Why did communism grow so quickly? Why did it spread to turn almost half of the world red by the mid-1970s? What impact did it have upon capitalism and capitalist society?

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CHAPTER 1 A short introduction

DOI: 10.4324/9781315836119-1


In 1848 in the opening section of The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels wrote of ‘a spectre … haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). Well, the spectre seems finally to have been laid to rest. Looking back over the history of communism, it seems strange to consider that it once haunted the establishment, lurking, waiting to pounce and turn the world upside down. At the peak of their power in the 1970s, communist parties held the reins across almost every continent. A few decades on, it now seems like something that belongs to another age. The years 1989 and 1991 saw communist parties felled and ushered ignominiously from power across Europe. With the rubble of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe now being tidied away, with China rushing headlong to embrace capitalism, with increasing scepticism about big ideas and grand visions, and with communists increasingly marginalized in the industrialized North and West, many appear to believe that the time for writing communism’s obituary is at hand.
In spite of the triumphalist outpourings of the heralds of capitalism, it is a little premature to write the obituary of communism. The forces and issues which led to the emergence of injustice, poverty, exploitation continue to cast a shadow over the world. The yearning for a better world still exists. Challenges to freemarket capitalism and western liberal democracies continue to grow and spread. Critics of globalization, of consumerism, of environmental degradation constantly voice their concerns of the damage being done by twenty-first century capitalism. So, if an obituary is to be written perhaps it should be the obituary of the communist regimes and movements of the modern era (roughly 1840–1991) rather than the communist idea itself.
But the present does appear to be a good time to look back and review communism, both historically and philosophically. The demise of communist regimes allows us the opportunity to draw breath, and retrace the story. It is a fascinating story too, one which has much to say about who we are today, and how we have come to where we are. The story of communism is integral to understanding why the world is as it is today. Intriguingly, this story also offers us further insights into our current condition. Communism in its modern form emerged out of the profound social, economic, political and cultural disjunctures caused by the emergence of capitalism and the growth of industrialization in the early nineteenth century. There are many historical parallels with the current socio-political and economic shifts taking place in late capitalism, with the rise of postmodernism, biotechnologies, virtual technology and globalization. What can a reappraisal of communism tell us about how societies react when going through periods of extensive, deep-seated change?
What exactly do I mean when I say ‘communism’? Communism has often been used interchangeably with other terms, most notably socialism. But although related, there is, conceptually and historically, clear blue water between the two. Communism is a clearly definable doctrine in its own right. Communism is a political movement and a socio-economic system on the one hand, and a set of ideas and theories on the other. This has led to disputes about the extent to which the communist movements and the communist regimes were actually ‘communist’. Were those regimes really ‘communist’? Or were they fundamentally perversions or distortions of the communist idea? Communism always acts as a critique of existing social, political, economic and cultural arrangements, and also offers an alternative to that reality, a vision of a radically different future. Yet the types of critique, and the forms of alternative have been very varied. Defining anything is a notoriously complex and rather slippery thing to engage in, but we have to start somewhere!
Generally speaking, a cluster of features and values can be identified as being part of the overall phenomenon of communism:
  • a social system based on harmony, equality and cooperation;
  • a collectivist or communal ethos or public morality;
  • a socio-economic system based on holding property in common;
  • the aspiration for a society which transcends individualism, competition, rivalry and selfishness;
  • a utopian longing for a ‘perfect’ society which liberates humanity from its various forms of oppression.
The variety and diversity of communism can be explained by the way in which these values have combined and changed over the years, and by the context out of which they arose. Communism as a set of ideas and as a form of community organization can only fully be understood against the background of the particular society in which it grew, and in particular the specific oppression against which it was directed. Communist thinking about the future also has to be rooted in the society it emerged from and reacted against.
Writing about communism is a controversial business. Communism and, by extension, socialism were seen as being closely related to Stalinism, and so were to be rejected and attacked as oppressive ideologies which enslaved people. Supporters in turn denied that the Stalinist crimes had anything to do with communism. Instead, they argued that communist ideology was all about liberating people from the oppression of capitalism, not suppressing their freedom. The stakes have been raised recently. A number of books have tried to establish a clear and direct link between communism and terror, genocide and mass murder. The now notorious text Le Livre Noir (The Black Book) (Courtois, 1999) lifted the lid on the ‘real’ nature of communism. In a work that is part history, part polemic and part human ledger, Courtois et al. crunched the numbers of people killed under communist regimes:
  • USSR: 20 million deaths;
  • China: 65 million deaths;
  • Vietnam: 1 million deaths;
  • North Korea: 2 million deaths;
  • Cambodia: 2 million deaths;
  • Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths;
  • Latin America: 150,000 deaths;
  • Africa: 1.7 million deaths;
  • Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths;
  • The international communist movement and communist parties not in power: about 10,000 deaths.
The total approaches 100 million people killed. One of the consequences of this type of approach has been to partially exonerate Nazism by claiming that it pales into insignificance when compared with the crimes of Stalinism (and so socialism/communism). One of the agendas behind this ‘judgement of history’ type approach has been to continue to discredit all left-wing ideas and ideals in the present, and so attempt to maintain the political hegemony of western liberalism. A little-noticed detail in the hullabaloo surrounding the publication of the Courtois tome was that one year later in 1998 Jean Suret-Canale published a Black Book of Capitalism, which presented a tally of victims far higher than that of communism. Its publication was almost totally ignored. The evils of communism are always, it seems, more newsworthy than the evils of capitalism.
The history of communism begins in earnest in the nineteenth century. But its roots go back much further in history.

Communism: the early years

No one is really sure where the term ‘communism’ actually originated from, although informed speculation suggests that it emerged in the early nineteenth century in Paris among revolutionary sects. Yet the nineteenth-century communist thinkers and movements were the heirs of a much longer tradition of speculative thought and organizational experimentation which might be grouped loosely under the term ‘communist’.

Classical beginnings

Humankind has always deployed collectivist solutions to the economic, social, political and technological problems it has faced. The early origins of human society produced communal arrangements in response to the vagaries of the environment and the struggle to eke out an existence. Both nomadic communities and also pastoral and arable settlers organized their communities in such a way as to maximize the likelihood of group survival. This entailed organizing both production and distribution in such a way as to avoid risk and ensure that all members of the group or settlement were cared for. This communal/egalitarian structure was essentially a consequence of the low productivity and primitive levels of technical development of ancient human societies. However, this ‘early’ or primitive communism cannot really be considered as a genuine alternative to the existing forms of social organization. It was purely the most effective form of society at that time.
The first speculative philosophizing on a form of ideal society came from Plato in The Republic. Although Plato’s vision was a deeply conservative one, and is not really a precursor of communist thinking, its utopian speculations can be likened to many other utopian dreamings. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks produced a more systematic corpus of writing and imaginings of a utopian ilk. Plato wrote of a future society which would be a Golden Age. This society was based on social stratification (including slavery) and divided society up into a rigid hierarchical class system: warriors, philosophers, commoners and slaves. But although this was a system of hierarchy it would provide the basis for a society of harmony as each person would occupy a place in the society which was appropriate to their interests. The Republic also asserted the need to remove the institution of private property as a precursor to a society of communal harmony.

Religious communism

The Middle East produced some of the earliest examples of radical, millenarian groups who sought to escape from the impurities and corruption of their societies. The Essenic communities grew up in the second century BC and combined a strict adherence to ceremonial religious regulations – celibacy, cleanliness, wearing white garments, and strict Sabbath observance – with egalitarian, communal and pacifist economic arrangements. The Essenes held their property in common, condemned slavery and prohibited trading as it promoted greed, cheating and covetousness. There was a strongly ascetic strand: embracing poverty as a virtue in its own right. A simple life, devoid of possessions was prized.
The emergence of the early Christian church in the first century AD saw a further mushrooming of communalism. Marx and Engels were clearly influenced by the experience of early Christianity in their theorizing about the nature of communism. The first century church committed itself to the common ownership of land, property, possessions so that all members of the community could be taken care of. There were limitations on the communal nature of the early church. They did not live in communal houses or in separate settlements. They essentially retained a familial basis to their social organization. Early Christianity rejected a society based on selfishness, greed and poverty. Instead they wished to model an alternative civilization based upon radical brotherhood, the sharing of wealth and possessions and the abolition of poverty among their brethren. They exhibited a profound indifference to personal property. This was not necessarily because they believed that personal property was itself intrinsically corrupt or evil. Instead, they believed fervently that everything they had belonged to God and they were merely stewards of this property. Moreover, their belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ meant that they displayed a profound disregard for possessions. What use would possessions be in the hereafter?
The experiences of the early church provided a pattern which was adopted by a variety of Christian sects and monastic settlements. In the wake of a series of persecutions in the Roman Empire, many thousands of believers fled and began to form loosely based communities. The hardships they encountered may well have encouraged the adoption of ascetic and self-denying practices: celibacy and poverty in particular. These communities became the forerunners for the monasteries. It was Benedict in the early sixth century AD who provided the impetus for the growth of the monastic movement. Monasteries provided a retreat where individuals seeking spiritual salvation and purity could leave their society and live a life of simplicity, obedience, chastity and discipline. The individual subordinated their own needs and wishes fully to the life of the monastery and to God.
The motivation for these communities organizing their social, political and economic structures along collectivist, egalitarian and fraternal lines was the desire to pursue a different type of life. The reasons for choosing communal-type arrangements were many and varied. For some it was a religious imperative: a path of obedience, redemption, salvation. Others saw it as an economic imperative if the whole community was to survive. For many it was an opportunity to model an alternative way of living and an escape from a corrupt world. Perhaps the most significant thing to note at this point is that the elements which approximated most closely to communism in its ‘modern’ form – collective property, egalitarianism, social justice, cooperation, absence of hierarchy – were pursued at this point not as ends in themselves, but because they were seen as means to a higher goal. Whereas the communist movements of the nineteenth century sought to abolish the existing capitalist system and replace it in toto with something morally, economically, politically and socially superior, these ‘early’ movements sought instead to escape from the existing society. They dreamt of creating ‘colonies of heaven’ on earth.

Communism: medieval and early modern

The period from around the fourteenth century up until the seventeenth century saw a number of social and economic changes which produced a new wave of ‘communist’ speculations and experimentation. Life continued to throw up communities and social groups who found different ways of giving expression to communalist and cooperative ideas. In addition though, the Renaissance produced a proliferation of speculative utopian philosophizing. A variety of philosophers and commentators – including Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella, François Rabelais, James Harrington, Francesco Patrizi and others – created an array of different ‘good societies’, common to which were notions of communal property, egalitarianism and cooperative living and working.
Alongside the monastic model of communal living, there emerged a version of agrarian communism. The feudal manorial system had always deployed common cultivation of the fields and common rights to use grazing and woodland. From the mid fourteenth century onwards, climate change, the plague and rising population growth all combined to create economic problems. The onset of agrarian capitalism and the disputes over land ownership and tenure produced social tensions. A series of rebellions broke out across Europe. In Italy (1304–07), Flanders (1323–28), France (1356), England (1381), Northern Spain (1437), Bohemia (1419–34) and Hungary (1514) revolts and protests ignited the countryside. These popular uprisings of peasants and artisans often combined radical millenarianism with social protest. They turned to the Bible for an alternative way of living, and to endorse their critique of the existing elites and the distribution of land and power. Groups such as the Lollards in fourteenth-century England, the Hussites in Bohemia and the Flemish weavers all looked to create a society synthesizing radical Christianity and social reform. The most famous – and the one which is most often cited in histories of the growth of communism – was the Peasants Rebellion in Germany in 1525.
The central figure in the German Peasants Rebellion was Thomas Münzer, a religious radical who wanted to institute an egalitarian order in which all property was held in common. Although he was a strong advocate of social and economic justice, his views were aligned very closely to the radical religious movement of Anabaptism and were based upon his interpretations of the Bible. It was a synthesis of religious and agrarian communism. Münzer was highly critical of the obsession with the collection and possession of material things. He believed in holding all property in common, with its usage by individuals in accordance with their needs, and he believed in the radical egalitarianism of all Christians. He viewed the ordinary people as the victims of a system created by clerics and aristocrats for their own purposes. He wanted to liberate the people from the various forms of oppression – religious, social, economic – that they were experiencing. It is perhaps little wonder that Münzer is seen as a revolutionary role model by Marxists and radical socialists, although his essentially religious motivation for his economic and social prescriptions should be borne in mind. The Peasant Rebellion was to inspire further revolts in the years to come (Stayer, 1994).

Renaissance visions and dreams

The Renaissance produced a strand of more secular utopianism. In Germany, Italy and England the period between c. 1480 and c. 1620 saw a proliferation of utopian speculations, including those of Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) and Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) among others. More’s work Utopia was written in 1515 (More, 1989). Utopia was heavily influenced by Plato, and indeed More tended to view his work as the completion or fulfillment...

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Citation styles for Communism
APA 6 Citation
Sandle, M. (2014). Communism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Sandle, Mark. (2014) 2014. Communism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Sandle, M. (2014) Communism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sandle, Mark. Communism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.