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A system of social organization in which goods are held in common.

Communism in the United States is something of an anomaly. The basic principles of communism are, by design, at odds with the free enterprise foundation of U.S. capitalism. The freedom of individuals to privately own property, start a business, and own the means of production is a basic tenet of U.S. government, and communism opposes this arrangement. However, there have been, are, and probably always will be communists in the United States.

As early as the fourth century b.c., Plato addressed the problems surrounding private ownership of property in the Republic. Some early Christians supported communal principles, as did the German Anabaptists during the sixteenth-century religious Reformation in Europe.

The concept of common ownership of goods gained a measure of support in France during the nineteenth century. Shortly after the French Revolution of 1789, François-Noël ("Gracchus") Babeuf was arrested and executed for plotting the violent overthrow of the new French government by revolutionary communists. Etienne Cabet inspired many social explorers with his Voyage en Icarie (1840), which promoted peaceful, idealized communities. Cabet is often credited with the spate of communal settlements that appeared in mid-nineteenth-century North America. Louis-Auguste Blanqui offered a more strident version of communism by urging French workers during the 1830s to organize insurrections and establish a dictatorship for the purpose of reorganizing the government.

Communism received, however, its first comprehensive intellectual foundation in 1848, when Germans karl marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto. As technology increased and industry expanded in nineteenth-century Europe and America, it became clear that the General Welfare of laborers was not improving. Although the new democratic governments gave new freedoms to workers, or "the proletariat," the capitalism that came with democracy had created different means of oppression. By drawing on existing theories of materialism, labor, and historical evolution, Marx and Engels were able to identify the reasons why, despite periodic drastic changes in government, common laborers had been doomed to abject poverty throughout recorded history.

In the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that human history was best understood as a continuing struggle between a small exploiting class (the owners of the means of production) and a larger exploited class (laborers in factories and mills who often worked for starvation wages). At any point in time, the exploiting class controlled the means of production and profited by employing the labor of the masses. In the capitalism that developed alongside democracy, Marx and Engels saw a progressive concentration of the powers of production placed in the hands of a privileged few. Although society was producing more goods and services, the general welfare of the middle class, they believed, was declining. According to Marx and Engels, this disparity or internal contradiction in capitalistic societies predicted capitalism's doom. Over time, as the anticipated numbers of the middle class, or "bourgeoisie," began to decrease, the conflicts between laborers and capitalists would sharpen, and social revolution was inevitable. At the end of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that the transfer of power from the few to the many could only take place by force. Marx later retreated from this position and wrote that it was possible for this radical change to take place peacefully.

The social revolution originally envisioned by Marx and Engels would begin with a proletariat dictatorship. Once in possession of the means of production, the dictatorship would devise the means for society to achieve the communal ownership of wealth. Once the transitional period had stabilized the state, the purest form of communism would take shape. Communism in its purest form would be a classless societal system in which property and wealth were distributed equally and without the need for a coercive government. This last stage of Marxian communism has as of the early 2000s never been realized in any government.


In October 1917, vladimir lenin and Leon Trotsky led the Bolshevik party in a bloody revolution against the Russian monarch, Czar Nicholas II. Lenin relied on violence and persistent aggression during his time as a Russian leader. Although he professed to being in the process of modernizing Marxist theory, Lenin stalled Marx's communism at its transitional phase and kept the proletariat dictatorship to himself.

Lenin's communist philosophy was designated by followers as Marxist-Leninist theory in 1928. Marxism-Leninism was characterized by the refusal to cooperate and compromise with capitalist countries. It also insisted upon severe restrictions on Human Rights and the extermination of actual and supposed political opponents. In these respects, Marxist-Leninist theory was unrecognizable to democratic socialists and other followers of Marxist doctrine, and the 1920s saw a gradual split between Russian communists and other European proponents of Marxian theory. The Bolshevik party, with Lenin at the helm, renamed itself the All-Russian Communist party, and Lenin presided over a totalitarian state until his death in 1924.

Joseph Stalin succeeded Lenin as the Communist party ruler. In 1924, Stalin established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) by colonizing land surrounding Russia and placing the territories within the purview of the Soviet Union. The All-Russian Communist party became the All-Union Communist party, and Stalin sought to position the Soviet Union as the home base of a world revolution. In his quest for worldwide communism, Stalin sent political opponents such as Trotsky into exile, had thousands of political dissidents tortured and murdered, and imprisoned millions more.

House Un-American Activities Committee

Between 1938 and 1969, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hunted political radicals. In hundreds of public hearings, this congressional panel set out to expose and punish citizens whom it deemed guilty of holding "un-American" views—fascism and communism. From government to labor, academia, and Hollywood, the committee aggressively pursued so-called subversives. It used Congress's subpoena power to force citizens to appear before it, holding them in Contempt if they did not testify. HUAC's tactics of scandal, innuendo, and the threat of imprisonment disrupted lives and ruined careers. After years of mounting criticism, Congress renamed HUAC in 1969 and finally abolished it in 1975.

In the late 1930s, HUAC arose in a period of fear and suspicion. The United States was still devastated by the Great Depression, and fascism was on the rise in Europe. Washington, D.C., feared spies. In early May 1938, Representative Martin Dies (R-Tex.) called for a probe of fascism, communism, and other so-called un-American (meaning anti-patriotic) beliefs. The idea was popular with other lawmakers. Two weeks later, HUAC was established as a temporary committee, with Dies at its head.

Because Chairman Dies was in charge, the press referred to HUAC as the Dies Committee. The chairman had ambitious goals. At first, he set out to stop German and Italian propaganda. Early investigations focused on two pro-Nazi groups, the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirt Legion. But Dies had a partisan agenda as well. An outspoken critic of Roosevelt, he wanted to discredit the president's New Deal programs. Contending that the Federal Writers' Project (a program to compile oral histories and travel guides) and Federal Theatre Project (employing out-of-work actors to help produce plays) were rife with Communists, HUAC urged the firing of thirty-eight hundred federal employees. In this atmosphere of conflict between the committee and the White House, the Justice Department found the numbers grossly exaggerated; its own probe concluded that only thirty-six employees had been validly accused. The committee's first great smear ended with dismal results.

HUAC's limited success in its early years was largely due to its chairman's political mistakes. Besides alienating Roosevelt and the Justice Department, Dies made an even more powerful enemy in j. edgar hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). After Dies publicly criticized the director, Attorney General robert h. jackson went on the attack, accusing HUAC of interfering with the FBI's proper role. Hoover himself saw to it that the turf battle was short-lived. In 1941 Dies was quietly informed that the FBI had evidence of his accepting a bribe. Although no charges were brought and Dies retained the title of chairman until 1944, he conspicuously avoided HUAC's hearings from that point on.

HUAC grew in both power and tenacity after World War II, for several reasons. A deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations started the Cold War, a decades-long battle of words—and, as in Korea and Vietnam, of bullets—in which Communism became identified as the United States' single greatest enemy. Both bodies of Congress, the White House, the FBI, and numerous conservative citizens' groups such as the John Birch Society rallied to the anti-Communist cause. Moreover, HUAC had new leadership. With Dies gone, Hoover was more than willing to assist with the committee's investigations, which was fortunate, since no congressional committee had the resources available to the FBI. When HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas announced in 1947 that the committee would root out Communists in Hollywood, he had nothing but Hearsay to go on. No Hollywood investigation would have taken place if Hoover, responding to Thomas's plea, had not provided HUAC with lists of suspects and names of cooperative witnesses.

Thus began a pattern of FBI and HUAC cooperation that lasted for three decades. Hoover's testimony before HUAC in March 1947 illuminated their common interest in driving the enemy into the open:

I feel that once public opinion is thoroughly aroused as it is today, the fight against Communism is well on its way. Victory will be assured once Communists are identified and exposed, because the public will take the first step of quarantining them so they can do no harm….This Committee renders a distinct service when it publicly reveals the diabolic machinations of sinister figures engaged in un-American activities.

The FBI director's prediction was right: quarantining of a sort did indeed follow.

The Hollywood probe marked a new height for HUAC. The committee investigated the film industry three times, in 1947, 1951–52, and 1953–55. The first hearing produced the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and professionals who refused to answer questions about whether or not they were Communists. Despite invoking their First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech, they were subsequently charged with contempt of Congress, tried, convicted, and jailed for between six months and one year. In later HUAC hearings, other film industry professionals invoked the Fifth Amendment—the constitutional protection against self-incrimination—and they too suffered. HUAC operated on the dubious premise that no innocent person would avoid answering its questions, and members of Congress frequently taunted witnesses who attempted to "hide," as they said, behind the Fifth Amendment. Not everyone subpoenaed was a Communist, but the committee usually wanted each person to name others who were, who associated with, or who sympathized with Communists. Intellectual sympathy for leftists was considered evil in itself; such "dupes," "commie symps," and "fellow travelers" were also condemned by HUAC.

These investigations had a tremendous effect. Hollywood executives, fearing the loss of profits, created a blacklist containing the names of hundreds of actors, directors, and screenwriters who were shut out of employment, thus ending their careers. In short time, television and radio did the same. For subpoenaed professionals, an order to appear before HUAC presented a no-win situation. If they named names, they betrayed themselves and others; if they did not cooperate, they risked their future. Some cooperated extensively: the writer Martin Berkeley coughed up 155 names. Some did so in order to keep working, but lived to regret it: the actor Sterling Hayden later described himself as a worm in his autobiography Wanderer. Others, like the playwright Lillian Hellman, remained true to their conscience and refused to cooperate. The HUAC-inspired blacklist caused a measurable disruption to employment as well as more than a dozen suicides.

HUAC's postwar efforts also transformed U.S. political life. In 1948, the committee launched a highly publicized investigation of Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking government official, on charges of spying for the Soviet Union. Hiss's subsequent conviction on perjury helped inspire the belief that other Communist spies must exist in federal government, leading to lavish, costly, and ultimately futile probes of the State Department by HUAC and Senator joseph r. mccarthy. HUAC had laid the groundwork for the senator's own witch-hunt, a reign of unfounded accusation that came to be known as McCarthyism. By 1950, McCarthyism so influenced U.S. political life that HUAC sponsored the most sweeping anti-Communist law in history, the McCarren Act (50 U.S.C.A. § 781 et seq.), which sought to clamp down on the Communist party but stopped short of making membership illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately stripped it of any meaningful force.

HUAC came under fire in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After turning its attention on labor leaders, the committee at last provoked the U.S. Supreme Court: the Court's 1957 decision in Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 77 S. Ct. 1173, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1273, overturned the contempt conviction of a man who refused to answer all of HUAC's questions, and, importantly, set broad limits on the power of congressional inquiry. Yet HUAC pressed on. In 1959 an effort to expose Communists in California schools resulted in teachers being fired and prompted some of the first public criticisms of the committee. By the late 1960s, as outrage over the Vietnam War made public dissent not only feasible but widely popular, many lawmakers began to see HUAC as an anachronism. In 1969 the House renamed it the Internal Security Committee. The body continued on under this name until 1975, when it was abolished and the House Judiciary Committee took over its functions (with far less enthusiasm than its progenitors).

HUAC's legacy to U.S. law was a long, relentless campaign against personal liberty. Its members cared little for the constitutional freedoms of speech or association, let alone constitutional safeguards against Self-Incrimination. Much of its work would not have been possible without the steady assistance of the FBI, whose all-powerful director Hoover (1895–1972) died shortly after the committee's heyday had ended. HUAC is remembered today, along with Hoover and McCarthyism, as characterizing the worst abuses of federal power during the cold war.

Stalin saw the Soviet Union through World War II. Although it joined with the United States and other democratic countries in the fight against Nazism, the Soviet Union remained strongly opposed to capitalist principles. In the scramble for control of Europe after World War II, the Soviet Union gained power over several Eastern European countries it had helped liberate and placed them under communist rule. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Romania were forced to comply with the totalitarianism of Stalin's rule. North Korea was also supported and influenced by the Soviet Union. More independent communist governments emerged in Yugoslavia and Albania after World War II.

For nearly 50 years after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a "cold war." So named for the absence of direct fighting between the two superpowers, the Cold War was, in reality, a bloody one. The Soviet Union and the United States fought each other through other countries in an effort to control the expansion of each other's influence.

When a country was thrown into civil war, the Soviet Union and the United States aligned themselves with the competing factions by providing financial and military support. They sometimes even supplied their own troops. The United States and Soviet Union engaged in warby-proxy in many countries, including Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Angola.

Cuba officially adopted communism in 1965 after Fidel Castro led a band of rebels in an insurrection against the Cuban government in 1959. Despite intense opposition by the United States to communism in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba became communist with the help of the Soviet Union.


Communism was also established in China. In 1917, Chinese students and intellectuals, inspired by the Bolsheviks' October Revolution, began to study and promote Leninist Marxism. China had been mired in a century-long civil war, and many saw Lenin's brand of communism as the solution to China's internal problems. In 1919, at the end of World War I, China received a disappointing settlement from Western countries at the Versailles Peace Conference. This outcome confirmed growing suspicion of capitalist values and strengthened the resolve of many Chinese to find an alternative basis for government.

On July 1, 1921, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) was established. Led by Chinese intellectuals and Russian advisers, the CCP initially embraced Russia's model of communism and relied on the organization of urban industrial laborers. By 1927, CCP membership had grown from fewer than 500 in 1923 to over 57,000. This increase was achieved in large part because the CCP had joined with another political party, the Kuomintang (KMT). KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek and KMT troops eventually became fearful of CCP control of the state, and in July 1927, the KMT purged communists from its ranks. CCP membership plummeted, and the party was forced to search for new ways to gain power.

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, the CCP sought to change its strategies. The party was divided between urban, Russiantrained students and a wing made up of peasants led by Mao Tse-tung. At the same time, the CCP was engaged in battles with the KMT over control of various cities, and several CCP attempts to capture urban areas were unsuccessful.

Mao was instrumental in switching the concentration of CCP membership from the city to the country. In October 1934, the CCP escaped from threatening KMT forces in southern China. Led by Mao, CCP troops conducted the Long March to Yenan in the north, recruiting rural peasants and increasing its popularity en route. In 1935, Mao was elected chairman of the CCP.

Japan's invasion of China in 1937 spurred a resurgence in CCP popularity. The CCP fought Japanese troops until their surrender in 1945. The CCP then waged civil war against the KMT. With remarkable organization and brilliant military tactics, the CCP won widespread support throughout China's rural population and eventually its urban population as well. By 1949, the CCP had established Beijing as the capital of China and declared the People's Republic of China as the new government.

Chinese communism has been marked by a willingness to experiment. In 1957, Chairman Mao announced China's Great Leap Forward, an attempt to advance industry within rural communes. The program did not flourish, and within two years, Mao concluded that the Soviet Union's emphasis on industry was incompatible with communal principles. Mao launched an ideological campaign in 1966 called the Cultural Revolution, in which students were employed to convert opponents of communism. This campaign also failed, as too many students loyal to Mao carried out their mission with violent zeal.After Chairman Mao died in 1976, powerful CCP operatives worked to eliminate Jiang Quing, Mao's widow, and three other party officials from the party. This Gang of Four was accused of undermining the strength of the party through adherence to Mao's traditional doctrines. The Chinese version of communism placed enormous emphasis on conformity and uniform enthusiasm for all CCP policies. With the conviction of the Gang of Four in 1981, the CCP sent a message to its members that it would not tolerate dissension within its ranks.

Also in 1981, the CCP Central Committee declared Mao's Cultural Revolution a mistake. Hu Yaobang was named chairman of the CCP, and Deng Xiaoping was named head of the military. These changes in leadership marked the beginning of CCP reformation. The idolization of Mao was scrapped, as was the ideal of continuous class struggle. The CCP began to incorporate into Chinese society technological advances and Western production management techniques. Signs of Western culture, such as blue jeans and rock and roll music, began to appear in China's cities.

In 1987, Hu Yaobang was removed as CCP chairman and replaced by Zhao Ziyang. Zhao's political philosophy was at odds with the increasing acceptance of Western culture and concepts of capitalism, and China's urban areas began to simmer with discontent. By May 1989, students and other reformists in China had organized and were regularly staging protests against Zhao's leadership. After massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the CCP military crushed the uprisings, executed dozens of radicals, and imprisoned thousands more.

Thus, the CCP maintained control of China's government. At the same time, it made attempts to participate in world politics and business.

The Demise of Communist States

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several communist states transformed their governments to free-market economies. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was named leader of the Soviet Union, and he immediately embarked on a program to liberalize and democratize the Soviet Union and its Communist party. By 1990, the campaign had won enough converts to unsettle the power of communism in the Soviet Union. In August 1991, opponents of Gorbachev attempted to oust him from power by force, but many in the Soviet military supported Gorbachev, and the coup failed.

The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991. The republics previously controlled by the All-Union Communist party held democratic elections and moved toward participation in the world business market. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Poland also established their independence. Romania had conducted its own revolution by trying, convicting, and executing its communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, at the end of 1989.

Communist control of governments may be dwindling, but communist parties still exist all over the world. China and Cuba have communist governments, and Spain and Italy have powerful Communist parties. In the United States, though, Communism has had a difficult time finding widespread support. The justice system in the United States has historically singled out Communists for especially harsh treatment. For example, joseph mccarthy, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, led an anti-Communist campaign from 1950 to 1954 that disrupted many lives in the United States.

Communism in the United States

Anti-Communist hysteria in the United States did not begin with Senator McCarthy's campaign in 1950. In Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 47 S. Ct. 641, 71 L. Ed. 1095 (1927), Charlotte Whitney was found guilty of violating the Criminal Syndicalism Act of California for organizing the Communist Labor Party of California. Criminal syndicalism was defined to include any action even remotely related to the teaching of violence or force as a means to effect political change.

Whitney argued against her conviction on several grounds: California's Criminal Syndicalism Act violated her due process rights because it was unclear; the act violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not penalize those who advocated force to maintain the current system of government; and the act violated Whitney's First Amendment rights to free speech, assembly, and association.

The Court rejected every argument presented by Whitney. Justices louis d. brandeis and oliver wendell holmes jr., concurred in the result. They disagreed with the majority that a conviction for mere association with a political party that advocated future revolt was not violative of the First Amendment. However, Whitney had failed to challenge the determination that there was a Clear and Present Danger of serious evil, and, according to Brandeis and Holmes, this omission was fatal to her defense. Forty-two years later, the decision in Whitney's case was expressly overruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 89 S. Ct. 1827, 23 L. Ed. 2d 430 (1969).

The political and social protests of the 1960s led to an increased tolerance of unconventional political parties in the United States. However, this tolerance did not reach every state in the Union. In August 1972, the Indiana State Election Board denied the Communist party of Indiana a place on the 1972 general-election ballot. On the advice of the attorney general of Indiana, the board denied the party this right because its members had refused to submit to a Loyalty Oath required by section 29-3812 of the Indiana Code. The oath consisted of a promise that the party's candidates did not "advocate the overthrow of local, state or National Government by force or violence" (Communist Party v. Whitcomb, 414 U.S. 441, 94 S. Ct. 656, 38 L. Ed. 2d 635 [1974]).

The Supreme Court, following its earlier Brandenburg decision, held that the loyalty oath violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In Brandenburg, the Court had held that a statute that fails to differentiate between teaching force in the abstract and preparing a group for imminent violent action runs contrary to the constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of association. Although the Communist party missed the deadline for entering its candidates in the 1972 general election, it succeeded in clearing the way for its participation in future elections.

In the twentieth century communism gained a hold among the world's enduring political ideologies and its popularity continues to ebb and flow with the shifting distribution of wealth and power within and between nations.

Further readings

Bentley, Eric, ed. 2002. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1985. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Gentry, Curt. 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton.

McLellan, David. 1979. Marxism after Marx. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Powers, Richard G. 1987. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press.

Pozner, Vladimir. 1990. Parting with Illusions. New York: Atlantic Monthly.

Rosenn, Max. 1995. "Presumed Guilty." University of Pittsburgh Law Review (spring).

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. 1973. The Gulag Archipelago. London: Collins/Fontana.

——. 1963. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Bantam.


Cuban Missile Crisis; Dennis v. United States; First Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Freedom of Association and Assembly; Freedom of Speech; Marx, Karl Heinrich; McCarran Internal Security Act; Smith Act; Socialism; Socialist Party of the United States of America; Vietnam War.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.