communism: Origins of Communism

Communism as a theory of government and social reform may be said, in a limited sense, to have begun with the ancient Greek idea of the Golden Age, a concept of a world of communal bliss and harmony without the institution of private property. Plato, in his Republic, outlined a society with communal holding of property; his concept of a hierarchical social system including slavery has by some been called aristocratic communism.

The Neoplatonists revived the idea of common property, which was also strong in some religious groups such as the Jewish Essenes and certain early Christian communities. These opponents of private property held that property holding was evil and irreligious and that God had created the world for the use of all humanity. The first of these ideas was particularly strong among Manichaean and Gnostic heretics, such as the Cathari, but these concepts were also found in some orthodox Christian groups (e.g., the Franciscans).

The manorial system of the Middle Ages included common cultivation of the fields and communal use of the village commons, which might be vigorously defended against the lord. It was partly to uphold these common rights, threatened by early agrarian capitalism, that the participants in the Peasants' Revolt (1381) in England and the insurgents of the Peasants' War in 16th-century Germany advocated common ownership of land and of the means of production.

In the 16th and 17th cent. such intellectual works as Sir Thomas More's Utopia proposed forms of communal property ownership in reaction to what the authors felt was the selfishness and depredation of growing economic individualism. In addition, some religious groups of the early modern period advocated forms of communism, just as had certain of the early Christians. The Anabaptists under Thomas Münzer were the real upholders of communism in the Peasants' War, and they were savagely punished for their beliefs. This same mixture of religious enthusiasm and economic reform was shown in 17th-century England by the tiny sect of the Diggers, who actually sought to put their theories into practice on common land.

Capitalism, reinforced by the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th cent., brought about the conditions that gave rise to modern communism. Wages, hours, and factory conditions for the new industrial class were appalling, and protest grew. Although the French Revolution ended without satisfying radical demands for economic egalitarianism, the voice of François Babeuf was strongly raised against economic inequality and the power of private property. For his class consciousness and his will to revolution he has been considered the first modern communist. Although he was guillotined, his movement (Babouvism) lived on, and the organization of his secret revolutionary society on the cell system was to be developed later as a means of militant revolution.

In the early 19th cent. ardent opponents of industrial society created a wide variety of protest theories. Already what is generally known as utopian communism had been well launched by the comte de Saint-Simon. In this era a number of advocates gathered followers, founded small cults, and attempted to launch communistic settlements, particularly in the United States. Most notable among such men were Robert Owen, Étienne Cabet, and Charles Fourier. Pierre Joseph Proudhon, although he did not adopt the principle of common ownership, exercised great influence by his attacks on the evils of private property.

A host of critics and idealistic revolutionists arose in Germany, but more important was the survival or revival of Babouvism in secret French and Italian revolutionary societies, intent on overthrowing the established governments and on setting up a new, propertyless society. It was among them that the terms communism and socialism were first used. They were used vaguely and more or less interchangeably, although there was a tendency to use the term socialist to denote those who merely stressed a strong state as the owner of all means of production, and the term communist for those who stressed the abolition of all private property (except immediate personal goods). Among the chief leaders of such revolutionary groups were the Frenchmen Louis Blanc and (far more radical) Louis Auguste Blanqui, both of whom played important roles in the February Revolution of 1848.

The year 1848 was also marked by the appearance of The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the primary exposition of the socioeconomic doctrine that came to be known as Marxism. It postulated the inevitability of a communist society, which would result when economic forces (the determinants of history) caused the class war; in this struggle the exploited industrial proletariat would overthrow the capitalists and establish the new classless order of social ownership. Marxian theories and programs soon came to dominate left-wing thought. Although the German group (founded in 1847) for which The Communist Manifesto was written was called the Communist League, the Marxist movement went forward under the name of socialism; its 19th-century history is treated in the article under that heading and under Socialist parties, in European history.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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