June 22, 2015
By Olivia Ward
The origins of communism
It began with the League of the Just, then plummeted into a pit of injustice that swallowed up millions of people around the world.
The league, a small society of French and German revolutionaries, had a eureka moment in 1847 when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels joined its ranks. Their radical Communist Manifesto became its bible, published under its auspices. And the rest, as we know, was history.
In the globalized 21st century the “overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat . . . and the establishment of a new society without classes or private property” sounds like a utopian, or dystopian fantasy. But the 23-page pamphlet became a runaway bestseller, and the template for an ideology that went viral in its day.
“Even before the Russian Revolution of 1917 it had been issued in several hundred editions in some 30 languages, including three in Japanese and one in Chinese,” wrote the late historian Eric Hobsbawn in his introduction to a new edition in 2012.
Marx and Engels saw the manifesto as the key to emancipation for the working class, and society as a whole. It was published 50 years after the French Revolution ended, and the overthrow of the monarchy only confirmed their conviction that the “proletariat” was the engine for liberating countries from the shackles of class.
The Russian Revolution, however, brought new and equally painful shackles, not the democratic enlightenment the authors had in mind. Joseph Stalin snuffed every whiff of democracy and entrenched a reign of terror that saw the death of millions of Soviet citizens from execution, exile, famine and disease. Russia kept the East Bloc countries in chains, and they became brutal police states where dissidents were tortured and imprisoned, and uprisings put down with extreme violence.
China adopted its own brand of totalitarian communism, which also caused millions of deaths. Versions of communism spread to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“Communist rule put new forms of exploitation in place, and especially in Cambodia and North Korea, imposed infinitely more suffering on the great majority of the population than the regimes they displaced,” says historian Archie Brown in The Rise and Fall of Communism.
Now, in the 21st century, only China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba remain communist, and China’s anti-capitalism has given way to a hybrid market economy. So has Vietnam’s. Cuba’s aging leadership and lowered tensions with Washington may signal an eventual end to the West’s only communist system. The classless society, and elimination of private property, have never been farther from global reality.