To many people, communism is an evil force that kills people and doesn’t allow them to vote or speak freely.
That’s partly true in terms of how Eastern Europe and China was run during the Cold War of the 20th Century. However, the underlying goals behind communism are somewhat less brutal.
Communism is a system of government and ideals where all people are considered equal in an attempt to create a fairer society.
It was formed as an alternative to the strict capitalist system in 19th century Europe where the class structure was seeing the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
The idea of communism
In a communist country, all property – land, businesses and resources – is owned by the people through the government.
The income from that wealth is then distributed evenly to ensure everyone is healthy, educated and financially secure. Inheritance and owning a business for private gain for example is forbidden.
Although communism as an idea had been around for ages, German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are generally credited with ‘inventing’ it.
Their 1848 book, The Communist Manifesto, set out its core principles.
It stated that the working class would lead a revolution against the ruling class, making way for a leader to take control of the government and redistribute wealth.
A kind of utopia would be achieved once all non-communists had been converted and everyone belonged to the same social class.
But it didn’t quite work out that way.
Putting communism into practice
In 1917, the Russian Vladimir Lenin put Marx and Engels' ideas into practice by leading the Bolshevik revolution in overthrowing Russia's government.
However, communism was a hard sell, and as Chairman of the new communist government (the Soviet Union), Lenin made some brutal decisions such as starving the poor to gain their support, and killing anyone who disagreed with him.
And with communists believing that communism should be international, the Russians then attempted to spread their thinking across the world during the Cold War.
By the time the Cold War ended (and with it, communism in Russia), communism had spread to countries such as Bulgaria, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Cuba, North Korea, China, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Today, only Cuba, North Korea and to a lesser extent Vietnam, Laos and China are communist countries.
Day to day life
In a true communist country, the government has complete control over the economy.
Hospitals, schools, prisons, shops, farms, factories, transport and universities are all provided by the government.
In communist China under Mao Zedong (from 1949-1976), every worker was employed by the government, and the government allocated housing, issued travel permits and marriage licenses, and granted permission for people to enter university or change jobs.
Traditional communist restrictions extend to ideas too. For example, there are no copyright laws, meaning all media and ideas are available to everyone, and the media is controlled by the government.
And even in places where elections are held, the people can only vote for political leaders from a list of organisations approved by the current government.
Modern communist countries
Of the modern communist countries, Cuba and North Korea are the most hard line.
Their economies are centrally planned, which means the government sets prices and decides on quantities for production and consumption.
In Cuba’s case, about 80% of businesses are owned by the government and 20% by the private sector.
The less hard line countries of China, Vietnam and Laos have all moved towards a market economy (i.e. private business ownership where prices and production are set by business competition).
However, their governments still own considerably more businesses, including some of the largest banks, oil and insurance companies, and spend far more on social welfare than capitalist countries.
In reality, China, Laos and Vietnam are run by communist political parties, but practice what Marx called the halfway point between communism and capitalism – socialism.
They remain committed to the ideas behind communism, such as spreading enough wealth to look after society’s poor, but also allow a certain amount of business freedom, ownership and trade.
The main problem with communism is that leaders have never truly been able to deliver on the key promise: that the government could meet the basic needs of citizens through total control of the economy.
In reality, people’s motivations are stifled by a lack of profit and intellectual property rights, meaning new ideas and technology are a lot slower to develop.
Furthermore, communism’s success relies on taking wealth away from the rich and powerful, a concept that is difficult, unpopular and relies on violence for success.
And in practice, communism has allowed a dictator or group of dictators to suppress a country’s citizens, only to become wealthy themselves through greed and corruption.
Marx and Engels hoped that communism would mean the end of poverty, but today, only Cuba and North Korea are still game enough to try.
By Natalya King
Photo – The Soviet communist symbol of the hammer and sickle.