The Origins of Communism

imagesIn the western world, communism is the most popular competing ideology. No other ideology has had such a dramatic rise and fall from power. No other ideology has posed such a serious threat to the dominance of classical liberalism and capitalism. And even after communism’s official fall, its remnants continue to evolve and thrive.

As of this writing there are only four nations whose governments are proclaimed followers of Marxist-Leninism (communism). They are China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Contrast this with the 25 nations who were followers during communism’s peak.

If we broaden our horizons a bit and look at those nations who proclaim to be working toward a Socialist society (stage 1 of a communist transition) you have a slightly longer list of seven countries. They are Bangladesh, Guyana, India, North Korea, Portugal, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.

So where do we begin?

event_205115382In a hot jungle

Human societies began very simply as collections of related people working toward a common goal; survival. As a result all members of society had to participate, or else the tribe would starve. Men, women, and children all had a role to play in building homes, making tools, hunting prey, collecting edible plants, and farming crops (if applicable). There was a fundamental equality here because one weak link meant the tribe would be suffer. Women would typically stay and raise the youngest children, farm, build tools, and make clothes. The men would hunt, protect the tribes land from rivals, and train the next generation of hunters.

The relationship is symbiotic and no labor is wasted. Food is distributed evenly to all members and leisure is enjoyed by all members of the tribe. There may be a tribal ‘leader’ but he is a mediator of arguments rather than an authority. Tribal arguments are made on equal grounds and decisions are made primarily via consensus.

This is what was later coined as “Primitive Communism,” and to a communist, was an example of how modern human societies should function. An important point is to be made about tribal societies; all production of the tribe is enjoyed equally among its members. As human society adapted to farming (and larger populations) it was possible for a portion of the population (say, 95%) to feed a smaller portion. This led to specialization, crafts, armies, and rulers. Our ‘primitive’ equality disappeared into a duality between the have and have-nots.

To the communist theorizer, this transition was the lynchpin of societal development through a principal Marx and Engels coined as “dialectical materialism.”

Opposites Attract Conflict

Dialectical Materialism is a philosophical principal which concerns itself with the continual ‘movement’ of some subject (social, technological, etc.) toward ‘new stages of evolution.’ This is all very fancy wording for saying that Communists saw the world as a series of conflicts between those with power and those without power. They saw the social transitions of history to a continuous splitting and recombining sequence. The two groups would battle, technology would improve, and eventually history moves onward to the final stage of communism. This idea is so influential that the vast majority of the western world analyzes other nations in terms of ‘classes’. As if our tortured Iranian citizens are working toward a final goal (a western style democracy); in true Marxist fashion. The greatest irony that exists today is how prevalent class analysis exists in Fox News (our favored ‘conservative’ media outlet who apparently hates Marx).

It is a rare day when class analysis isn’t used to explain the issues prevalent in foreign nations on Fox News. But class analysis on it’s own isn’t Marxist. What is Marxist is to use that class analysis as the implication for progressing toward some more evolved state of human development (a Marxist would see the end stage as Communism, Fox News sees it as a western democratic, capitalist society). (last couple paragraphs)

fnc-ff-20110405-huntingtherichI’m being serious, take a look.

Here is our progression through history in the guise of dialectical materialism.

Slave Master <-> Slave [Bronze, Iron Age]

Feudal Lord <-> Serf [Feudal era]

Company Owner <-> Worker [industrial era]

Each stage had a conflict and a struggle between those with power and those without power. And through their conflict emerged the next ‘level’ of societal organization which was an improvement upon the past. It would yield new conflict and new struggles, but one truth remained; each conflict had the worker gain more equality with its owner.

To the communist this last transition was the final ‘synthesis’ of conflict between the Company Owner (our ‘bourgeoisie’) and our Worker (the ‘proletariat’). Communism was to bring about this conflict through a popular, collective, spontaneous uprising ushering in a new era of human development.

Much of Marx’s work was devoted toward his theories of Capitalism’s inevitable collapse; but his theories fit in well with the ‘current’ of popular ideological thought. The use of scientific principals in every facet of life.

indexScience Rules

As society was using empirical science to improve all aspects of life, some brave individuals thought, “Why not apply this to governance?” The answer to a ‘science’ of governing would be the obsession of the industrial world for over a hundred years.

As far as timelines are concerned, Marx was born in 1818 and published his famous “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848.

1712 saw the steam engine invention, 1764 the “spinning jenny”, 1794 saw the cotton gin and 1846 saw the sewing machine. The industrial revolution was radically altering the political landscape of Europe and America. Power was shifting from the heritage based aristocracy toward merchants and industrialists. Communist political ideology was developed along with these changes.

49824_cotton_gin_lgCotton Gin: Why it took the americas nearly 100 years to invent a spinning wheel is beyond me…

What we also saw during the 1800s was an intense interest in empirical science and engineering. This was the era of the assembly line, the steam engine, and of electricity. Around the western world governments and private business alike were interested in improvement from manufacturing, to school systems, bureaucracy, food production, to… you name it.

A key part of this world view was prevalence of an engineers perspective. You place inputs in a machine, you maintain it, and the same result will occur. Much like empirical science (we only trust experiments that we can replicate) the natural world operates on some ‘rules’ and ‘axioms’. Once discovered, untold treasures await. To the Communist, humans are a blank slate (tabula rasa, for our fancy, cultured, readers); this means that capitalism’s “I got mine, go get yours” is NOT the ‘natural’ state of human behavior. Instead, it is a learned social behavior that we glen from the evils of bourgeoisie culture. These evils can be rooted out through proper child rearing and societal structure.

This mechanical world view produced the modern school system of grouping children by age group (rather than academic ability), Keynesian economic theory, and incredible technological progress in every field (even if you are a Liberal, it wasn’t all bad). Much time was spent on the assembly line finding out exactly what strength of steel was required to produce a functioning engine, how much coal we needed to heat x amount of steel, and how long it would withould daily stress.

imagesOn the Horizon

On the cusp of this great revolution with our dramatic improvements in material wealth, the noble aristocracy was losing power at the expense those owners of capital, the bourgeoisie. This new industrial class would become the new ‘rulers’ of our modern world.

But Marx, always the philosopher, was interested in the next step. What comes next after capitalism? Looking into the future, maybe 50 years or 100 years from now he believed capitalism would collapse, just as the guild system collapsed just a few decades prior. He wrote a very lengthy and terse argument known as “Capital: Critique of Political Economy” as to why he felt this way; and after a few years (it took a while to read…) a lot of people got pretty mad about it.

WicksteedI don’t care how eloquent your rebuttal was, you’re half the beard Marx was.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its past, Socialism (Marx argued, in other writings) would rise from the ashes of Capitalism. After Socialism, human society would mold our blank slate children into communal, non-selfish, and loving individuals. From that hot bed would spring a Communist utopia.

We’ll explore the Communist ideology in detail (just as we did with Fascism) next time.



  1. Great post laying out the fundamentals of Communism. I often get the question, “What is communism?” It’s a difficult question to answer if that person doesn’t have a full grasp of the context of which it emerged and evolved as an idea. I guess I’ll have to point them here from now on!

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