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Throughout the history of the modern world, man has sought out the perfect government. An invincible system of order. And in our search for this ideal system, the idea of holding property in common has been a reoccurring thought. From early Christian communities to modern Marxist states, socialism and more specifically, communism has had an important role in the development of this ideal system.
After the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794, the roots of modern-day communism can be clearly seen. In 1795, Gracchus Babeuf wrote the “Plebeians’ Manifesto” which stated, for full social and economical equality:
“...to establish a common administration; to suppress individual property; to attach each man to the employment or occupation with which he is acquainted; to oblige him to place the fruits of his labor in kind into a common store; and to establish a simple administration for food supplies, which will take note of all individuals and all provisions, and will have the latter divided according to the most scrupulous equality.” - “Plebeians’ Manifesto”1
Because of this and other acts considered to be threatening to the Directory, Babeuf was executed in May of 1797. Babeuf was not forgotten though, others followed in his footsteps. Another 19th century French reformer, Charles Fourier, shared many of Babeuf’s ideas, but where Babeuf favored immediate political change, Fourier was for longer-term social reform. The Comte de Saint-Simon, another political thinker of that time, was similar to Fourier in many respects, although he valued a mixed society of capitalist thinkers and socialist workers which he believed would triumph in future French communities.
Meanwhile in England, Robert Owen, a Welsh industrialist, was developing his own brand of Socialism. Unlike many philosophers of his time, Owen based his ideas on experience rather than speculation. He managed a factory and realized that labor was the essential “factor of production”. He looked to the workers rather than government for solutions to economic problems. He proposed “cooperative societies”, or self-contained communities of producers and consumers which he hoped would prove his theories. But his socialist experiment never took place because adequate funding was denied.
In the mid-1830’s, the term “Communism” was introduced to the world of French politics. First used to describe Saint-Simon and Fourier’s egalitarian slant on socialist ideas, Louis Blanc built on the ideals of Fourier to establish an important point of modern-day communism. He stated the principle, “...from each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs”, where as the old principle stated, “.
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Even more influential, though, was German thinker Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel introduced “radical” ideas to European politics in the early 1800’s, but they would not be fully realized by others until after his death in 1831. He was convinced that all life evolves from total unconsciousness to full self-consciousness. By this he meant that we as a race of people are gradually becoming more aware of our existence. At his intellectual peak, Hegel said, “The real is the rational.” And although this may not have been Hegel’s intent, many 19th and 20th century followers interpreted this as a outward rejection of religion which in itself is centered on faith.
But to fully understand the evolution of modern-day Communism, we must first understand it’s beginnings as a communal system. It wasn’t until about the 6th century B.C. that the Buddhist monks who made up the “Sangha” tried to abolish the “caste” system. During this time in Greece, Pythagoras and his disciples believed that friendship was the basis for a good society, and to them is attributed the phrase, “friends should have all things in common.” But for obvious reasons, this system could never work on a larger scale.
The idea gained momentum in late 5th century Greece when Plato recorded his predecessor’s dialogue in The Republic. Socrates outlines two types of communism in his dialogue. The first was a “utopian” communism which basically describes a peasant society not complicated by luxuries. He goes on to say that such a society would work for “pigs” but not a civilized 4th century Athenian. For this he explained a sophisticated communism, one that would do away with the hardships caused by a wealthy ruling class. Plato then goes on to lay out a community in which wealth and power is separated, factoring social class out of the ruling equation. But Socrates argues the impracticality of Plato’s system being introduced to an Aristocratic Greece.
Over a thousand years later and over a thousand of miles away, Sir Thomas Moore wrote Utopia. An assessment of modern political ideals, Moore’s book started an uprising in 16th century Europe. The Great Peasants War of 1524-1525 threw a radical Protestant, Thomas Münzer, into the public eye. He preached of Heaven on earth; a world without private property or power. Münzer’s realization was short lived though. Anabaptist communities in Germany drew attention away from Münzer. By the mid-1600’s, communism resurfaced in England, spawning the creation of The Law of Freedom in a Platform by Gerrand Winstanley, a preindustrial communist. He said, “True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, that is in the use of the earth.” To Winstanley, this meant that common ownership must be established and the sale of human labor abolished.2
Following the many peasant uprisings in Europe and more specifically, the French Revolution, Karl Marx entered the world of European politics. Collectively, Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Friedrich Engels left an impressive mark on this world. Marx and Engels are commonly recognized for their book, The Communist Manifesto, but Feuerbach is often forgotten. Although Feuerbach didn’t participate in communal experiments or political action, he was very active in the advocation of education for the working class. Feuerbach did disagree with Marx on a few points, and most notably, religion. Feuerbach was for atheist education where as Marx saw religion as a necessary component to the proletarian lifestyle. He viewed it as an assisting force in man’s self-consciousness.
Both Marx and Feuerbach were powerful spokesmen of the proletariat. They both knew that labor was an indispensable factor of production as Robert Owen did in the early 19th century. Throughout the class struggles of the late 20th century, Marx stood by the proletariat. He argued that the providers of a nation, the working class, should be treated fairly, democratically. This lead to the development of the Paris Commune in 1871. It was said by Marxian Communist’s to be the first attempt to establish a democratic workers’ state. Unfortunately, the commune ended with tens of thousands of men and women being executed or deported.
In the years that followed the failed Paris Commune, a rivalry grew between Marx and his followers and those of Mikhail Bakunin, a founder of modern anarchism. A wave of anti-communist thought swept over Europe. The Communist Party adopted the name of the Social-Democratic Party to escape the stigma that went along with communism.
When attention shifted from Marx to the development of a Communist state in Russia, leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and later, Joseph Stalin lead the Soviet Union into the 20th century and through two world wars. And as the economic situation worsened in China, the U.S.S.R. came to their aid and soon, a Communist party was established with Mao Tse-tung at the helm. The process continued. Next, Cambodia, under the power of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, experimented with Communism until they were invaded by Vietnam in 1978 which resulted in a short war between Vietnam and China. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union went through more changes and by the 1980’s, a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was in control. He introduced many new reforms which attempted to modernize and liberalize the system rather than destroy it. But by 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved. Communism had failed.
Today, Communism is hardly anything but a footnote in history. It is no longer a “threat” to the United States as it once was during the Cold War. China is one of the last countries of any significance to be under the reign of Communism, and yet several reforms have modernized the country even further. The future of Communism is an uncertain one. And a comeback in the 21st century is unlikely, according to most.3 So what will come of Communism, no one is sure.
The spread of Communism was one that passed through time as well as boundaries. Through thousands of years and thousands of miles, Communism has survived. It was a journey traveled by many, but only a few have survived. The survivors: Plato, Socrates, Babeuf, Fourier, Owen, Blanc, Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and all of the others that line the pages of history books. They are those who were able to advance a system that was destined to fail. So were their efforts done in vain? Of course not. It was all done with the intent of finding the perfect system. Is it likely that we will find that system? Of course not.