What is Communism?

Communism is a social, economic, and political ideology whose aim is to establish a communist society in which there is a collective ownership of the means of production[1]. The goal of communism is to eliminate social classes in society. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are considered the founding fathers of communism[2]. Communism believes that the current order of society comes from capitalism. Communism views capitalism as a system which mainly consists of class struggles between the proletariat (working class) who make up the majority of the population and the bourgeoise(capitalists), who make profit from exploiting the working class through private ownership of the means of production and they form the minority of the population. Communism believes that through a revolution, the working class could seize power and establish social ownership of the means of production where the main goal would be to transform society into a more equitable one towards communism). Karl Marx was a key figure in conceptualising this ideology.

An image of Karl Marx, a German philosopher and a famous advocate for communism. Image Source

Karl Marx Writings:

Karl Heinrich Marx was born in Germany (5 May 1818- 14 March 1883) and was an economist, political theorist, and philosopher.  Karl Marx became stateless because of his work that mainly consisted of political publications which forced him to live in exile with his wife and children[3]. Marx’s best-known works include the 1848 pamphlet titled The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital which consisted of 3 volumes of this work. His works have had and continue to have a significant influence on intellectual, economic, and political history.

Marxism is collectively understood as Karl Marx’s criticisms of existing societal arrangements, economic and political systems as well as his offerings of alternative arrangements. Marxists believe that all human civilization has come out of conflict, more specifically, class conflicts. Class conflicts show themselves in the capitalist mode of production. In this mode of production, class conflicts arise from the differences between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is better understood as the ruling class that owns and controls the means of production (land) and the proletariat would be the working class that exchange their time and labour for living wages, thus, allowing for production in the capitalist mode of production.

Part of Marx’s predictions around capitalism are that it would produce internal tensions that would lead to its own destruction followed by the replacement of that system by a new communist mode of production. The contradictions under capitalism would drive the proletariat to revolt against the capitalist system in a quest for political power and a classless and communist society categorised by a free association of producers. Marx actively advocated for this ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, arguing that they (the proletariat) have the power to organise a proletarian revolution that would eventually lead to the capitalist system overthrown and begin to promote economic and political freedoms.

1905 Revolution: Issues that led to the Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1905 which was also known as the First Russian Revolution was a time of mass social and political unrest which took place in various parts of the Russian government, some of which were aimed at the government[4]. The unrests took the form of worker strikes, peasant unrest and military rebels who wanted to overthrow the government. These strikes led to many constitutional reforms in Russia such as the establishment of a State Duma, the multi-party system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906.

The 1905 revolution was propelled and fuelled by various causes such as the Russian defeat in the war against Japan which ended in 1905. The revolution was also caused by a growing realisation by many sectors of society for the need for reform in Russia. In addition to this, the revolution was spurred on by newly emancipated peasants who were earning low wages with limited land rights and ownership. Ethnic and national minorities also added to the discontent in Russia as they resented the government because of how it oppressed and discriminated against them such as stripping them of voting rights and limiting their schooling options. Another sector of society were the industrial working class who hated the government for not protecting them and suppressing their voices by banning their strikes and labour unions. University students developed a new consciousness with growing radical ideas to overthrow the government was another major course of the revolution[5]. Collectively these issues created the recipe for the 1905 revolution.

Link between the 1905 and the 1917 revolution including political, economic and social causes:

Following the 1905 revolution, Nicholas 2nd (Russia’s last Emperor) promised the Russian people changes and better living conditions, however, he failed to do this and Russia’s social and economic problems continued. In 1914, Russia entered World War one to support their French and British allies (Wade, 2017)[6]. However, Russia’s involvement in the war became disastrous as their military was inferior to Germanies military which resulted in mass casualties that they had never faced before in previous wars.  This war caused food and fuel shortages in Russia which significantly increased inflation which crippled Russia’s economy (Wade, 2017).

Like the 1905 revolution, these conditions in 1917 caused demonstrations for bread and better living conditions by way of mass participation of workers and peasants. Even though authorities opened fire and killed protesters, they continued to protest and gained momentum. Eventually, the revolution brought an end to the Tsarist monarchy on February 1917. This victory saw Trotsky return to Russia and became the leader of the Bolsheviks[7]. Here Trotsky played a pivotal role in the October Revolution where they orchestrated the overthrow of the new provincial government. Following this, Trotsky was appointed the Commissar of foreign affairs in government and played an instrumental role in pulling Russia out of World War one. From 1918-1925 he oversaw the Red Army.  

The civil war and war communism:

After establishing peace with Germany, the Soviet state soon saw disgruntlement within itself from dissatisfied sections which did not approve of the radical policies of the Bolsheviks (Raleigh, 2002)[8]. To show their discontent, centres of resistance were formed in southern and Siberian Russia by anti-Communist forces who called themselves the whites who were led by former officers of the tsarist army. The Whites and the Red Army soon waged a civil war which would determine Russians future. By 1920, the communist were the clear victors of the Civil War (Raleigh, 2002). The White Army had been defeated and were divided and had not clear cause which led to their demise.

The Soviets state communists applied control in the economic life of the country by applying extreme measures which became known as war communism (economic policies applied by Bolsheviks during the cold war)[9]. This war communism meant coordinating Russia’s economic resources such as nationalising industry across Russia and rejecting workers control of these factories and brining in experts to run these.

Lenin’s seizure of control of the State:

After the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, Russia came under the command of a Provisional Government which was against violent social reform and who continued Russia’s involvement in WW1. While this was happening, Lenin began planning a coup d'etat of the Provincial Government (Medvedev, 1979)[10].  His selling point of this overthrow was advancing that workers and peasants should directly rule. This was welcomed by workers and peasants as they demanded immediate change in what became known as the October Revolution. Lenin secretly organised factory workers, peasants and soldiers in a successful coup d'etat which was bloodless (Medvedev, 1979). The Bolsheviks seized power of the government and by extension of the Soviet state and made Lenin the leader of the communist state.

Lenin’s economic policy:

In 1921, Lenin adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP) as a temporary retreat from its previous policy of extreme centralization and doctrinaire socialism. Lenin saw this economic policy as the one that would include a “free-market” and “capitalism”. These are assumed to be subject to state administration, whilst socialized state enterprises would function on a “profit-basis”.[11] In the light of the depressed Russian economy, the NEP and its insistence on market-oriented economic policies were deemed necessary after the Russian Civil War which dated from 1918 to 1922. In this context, the nationalization of industry (formed during the War Communism of 1918-1921) was partially withdrawn by the Soviet authorities and had thus implemented a system of mixed economy. On the one hand, this system allowed private individuals to own small enterprises. On the other hand, the state continued to regulate banks, foreign trade, and large industries. Furthermore, the NEP has dismantled prodrazvyorstka (forced grain-acquisition) and introduced a system known as prodnalog which basically imposed taxes on farmers, payable in the form of raw agricultural product. [12] This allowed them to keep and trade part of their produce. It is argued that, initially, this tax was paid in kind.

Thus, the adoption of the NEP signalled the promulgation of a new agricultural policy. For example, the Bolsheviks saw traditional village as ‘pre-modern’ and ‘backward’. Hence, the NEP only permitted private landholdings because the idea of the collectivized farming met strong backlash. In the light of severe economic conditions in Russia, Lenin’s policies opened up markets to the greater degree of free trade, hoping to lure the large population to increase production. However, James Gregor argues that Lenin’s policies did not only restore private property rights, profits, and a whole range of other capitalist enterprises, but his policies turned to international capitalist markets for support and aid. [13] Lenin had the belief that in order to achieve socialism, he had to create the “missing material prerequisites” of modernization and industrial development that made it possible for Soviet Russia "fall back on a centrally supervised market-influenced program of state capitalism".[14] In this regard, Lenin followed the logic of Marxist vision that a society must first reach the full stage of capitalism as a pre-condition for socialism to be inaugurated. Zickel, Raymond postulates the use of Marxism-Leninism as a concept to describe Lenin’s approach to economic policies which were seen to support policies that paved the way towards the realization of communism. [15] However, the death of Lenin in 1924 brought the NEP to an end.

At the start of the 1930s, Stalin implemented a host of radical that completely changed industrial and agricultural face of the Soviet Union. This came to be known as the Great Turn as Russia moved away from the near-capitalist NEP and instead adopted a command economy. The NEP adopted by Lenin was implemented in order to ensure the survival of the socialist state following seven years of war  (World War I, 1914–1917, and the subsequent Civil War, 1917–1921) and had reconstituted the Soviet production to its 1913 levels. However, Stalin and the majority of the Communist party felt that the NEP compromised communist ideals and did not deliver adequate economic performance, and this rendered the policy inadequate to create a socialist state. It was thus believed that the pace of industrialization had to be increased in order to catch up with the west.

In reading these important debates in the history of the Russian revolution, how and where do we position women’s involvement in these male-dominated spaces? The Russian Revolutions of 1917 saw the collapse of the Russian empire – a temporary government and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state under the Bolsheviks. In this regard, explicit comments were made to promote the equality of men and women.  It has been an article of faith in history writing in that men in society are considered the legitimate political subject, whilst women remain domesticated, confined to the home, and thus defined outside the domain of politics and economics. There is a clear line demarcated here between the private and the public sphere. The former is understood to be the mere zone of passivity, and thus its primary constituents (women) are rendered as ‘pre-revolutionary’ and ‘pre-political’ subjects in this regard. The latter is assumed to constitute the domain of politics. The experiences of women before the Russian revolution are no exception to these male dominated narratives of ‘formal’ political participation in public life. It was thus believed that the revolution would grant women the decorum to move out of the private realm and enter the public realm as revolutionary subjects.

These ideas underwrote the communist vision of women’s emancipation in Russia and elsewhere in the world.  Katie McElvanney’s work complicates this understanding and shows how women’s involvement in the Russian revolution merely put burden on them as they were expected to perform dual duties. On the one hand, they were expected to perform traditional demands of the private sphere i.e., taking care of children and a host of related traditional gender roles. On the other hand, they were expected to be active in the demanding politics of public life. It was mainly urban based, educated, and wealthy women who actively participated in the Russian revolution. As mentioned above, the traditional village life was viewed outside the domain of politics and economics. As a result, towards the end of the 19th century, many women began to migrate to industrial urban cities to work in factories or domestic service. It is in this context; they began to affiliate themselves to the revolutionary movements and furthered the project of women’s liberation.

Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism:

Karl Marx assumed and theorised that the working class would gain a collective class consciousness and be powerful enough because of their numerical advantage and be able to control the most vital sectors of industry to gain social and political power to form a classless and stateless society which was equal (Evans, 1993)[16]. Lenin’s theory can be considered a development of Marx’s theory. Lenin on the other hand had theorised that the minority working class of the Soviet Union could be able to conscientize and inspire peasants and other workers in other countries to seize state power and not abolish the state as in Marx’s analysis and political thinking

Lenin’s government deviated from Marxism temporarily by introducing the New Economic Policy (NEP) which was an economic policy adopted by the government from 1921-1928 which was a temporal retreat from their exclusive centralization and doctrinaire socialism (Richman, 1981)[17].  The NEP replaced war communism as the official economic policy and war communism almost brought the Soviet economy near collapse. The NEP ended gran confiscation and replaced it with a fixed tax and people to own small businesses and allowed them to sell surplus goods which meant a return of market (Richman, 1981).

Women and the Russian revolution:

In 1905 the young Russian feminist movement were delighted by the uprising of 1905 which was followed by a loosening of some of the restrictions that women were subjected to and the creation of the national parliament. In 1908, there was a pushback to this and feminists had to retreat (Ruthchild & Goldberg, 2007)[18]. This meant that women were not allowed in institutions of higher learning and moral among liberal forces was low.

However, the outbreak of the war in August in 1914 came as a surprise and as a result the Empire was not adequately prepared for this. While men enrolled into the army, millions of women assumed new roles which were vacated by the men. Industrial centres saw a significant increase from 1914 to 1917. Women were assuming work roles and came out of domesticated roles as peasant women also took new roles taking over some of their husbands’ farm work. Some women fought directly in the war often disguised as men and thousands more served as nurses. These new roles women assumes during the war affected the subsequent roles women would play in the coming revolutions.

Following the collapse of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks created the world’s first socialist state. The Bolsheviks made conscious and explicit commitments to promote the equality of men and women. Even before this, many Russian working women and feminists actively participated in the war and were affected by the events of the war and thus were included in the new policies of the new government. The Bolsheviks advocated for liberalism and made Russia one of the first countries to allow women to vote. Amongst the laws the Bolsheviks implemented that liberated women were: liberalizing laws on divorce and abortion. decriminalising homosexuality and giving women a higher status in society.

The role of the Bolsheviks Government in changing the lives of women:

The first years of Bolsheviks rule inaugurated substantial changes to the lives of many women. Alexandra Kollontai was a people’s commissar for Social Welfare and the first woman in the Bolshevik Government. Through her activism and others, the question of women in the revolutionary struggle became more pronounced and this led a number of reforms concerning the liberation of women in public life. The provisional government that took power after the February 1917 overthrow of the Tsar promoted liberal values and made Russia the first major country that enfranchised women- giving them the right to vote and hold public office. In relation to reforms that transformed the lives of women, notably, the Family code of 1918, granted women equal status to men, secularized, granted equal legal rights to both ‘illegitimate’ (children born outside of wedlock) and ‘legitimate’ children, and allowed a couple to take either a husband or wife’s name once married. In addition, divorce became easily obtainable, abortion was legalized in the 1920s, and communal facilities for childcare and domestic tasks. These changes were instituted with the aim of relieving women of household chores.

However, these reforms that liberated women were short-lived. In the mid- to late 1920s, both public and party attitudes on family policy had leaned towards conservative politics. In the 1930s, Stalin reversed most of the progressive policies enshrined in Family code of 1918. In addition, closed the party’s women bureau in 1930s with the view that women’s emancipation has been achieved in the Soviet Union, and therefore this department was no longer necessary, according to him. This was a puzzling development considering the fact that women only constituted (on average) only 3-4% of the party’s central committee.

An image of Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Revolutionary that led the Soviet Government from 1917 to 1924. Image Source

Death of Lenin and the power struggle:

After Lenin’s death in 1924, there was a power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky for who would be next in charge of the party and by extension, the country. The two did not see eye to eye in matter of policy in 1927 which led to Trotsky’s expulsion from the party which led to Trotsky going into exile in 1928 (Mandel, 1995)[19]. After Trotsky went into exile, this meant that Stalin became in charge of the state.

Two conflicting schools of thought dominated regarding the future of the Soviet union within the party after Lenin’s death. Trotsky believed that world revolution was necessary for socialism to survive in the Soviet union.  Stalin on the other hand was of the belief that socialism should be in one country. With this stance, Stalin ousted his opponents who advocated for world revolution as he gained support from the party’s right wing which was sufficient to get him to stay in power.

An image of Joseph Stalin who ruled the Soviet Union from the mind 1920’s until his death in 1953. Image Source

Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism-Leninism:

After  taking charge of the state, Stalin implemented various policies that came to be known as Stalinism. Stalinism were the policies and governance implemented by Stalin in his rule of the Soviet Union which reined from 1927 to 1953. Amongst these were one-party totalitarian police state, collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialisation.

What this autocratic rule under Stalin did in the country was force anyone or any organisation it saw as a threat to hide their discontent with the state because being openly against the state meant either being arrested, executed, forced into labour in concentration camps or exiled.

The coming of the Second World War:

The Soviet union and Germany signed a peace agreement with Nazi Germany in 1939 (Roberts, 1995)[20]. Within this agreement was a secret clause that included how these two nations would divide certain parts of Eastern Europe such as Romania, Poland, Estonia and Finland. However. Germany invaded Poland on September 1 with the Soviet Union following the invasion of Poland as well on the 17th of September. However, the invasions of Eastern Europe caused tensions between the two nations as they did not stick to ‘their’ respective territories. 

On June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  With the help of its West allies, the Soviet Union managed to stop Germany. Over the next 4 years, the Soviet Union continued defending itself and eventually led to victory. While the Soviet Union managed to stop Germany from fully invading, it suffered the most casualties, losing more than 20 million citizens. Stalin met with Britain’s president Winston Churchill and the United States of Americas president Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference to discuss war against Germany and the future of Europe. In April 1945, Berlin finally fell with Germany defeated.

This content was originally produced for the SAHO classroom by
Sebastian Moronell, Ayabulela Ntwakumba, Simone van der Colff & Thandile Xesi

End notes

[1] Douzinas, Costas and Zizek. “The idea of communism”. Verso Books, 2010. p. 145.

[2] Marx, Engels and Moore. Manifesto of the communist party. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972. p. 28.42.

[3] Werner. Karl Marx: an illustrated biography. Verso, 2000. p. 4.

[4] Abraham. The revolution of 1905: Russia in disarray. Vol. 1. Standford University Press, 1994. p. 127-150

[5] Abraham. The revolution of 1905: Russia in disarray. Vol. 1. Standford University Press, 1994. p. 304

[6] Rex. The Russian Revolution, 1917. Vol. 53. Cambridge University Press, 2017. p. 176

[7] Trotsky. History of the Russian revolution. Haymarket Books, 2008. p. 793

[8] Raleigh. Experiencing Russia’s civil war: politics, society and revolutionary culture in Saratov, 1917-1922. Prince University Press, 2002. p. 80

[9] Lih. “Bolshevik Razverstka and War Communism.” Slavic Review 45, no. 4 (1986): p. 673-688

[10] Medvev. The October Revolution. Columbia University Press, 1979. p.80-92

[11] Lenin, V.I. "The Role and Functions of the Trade Unions under the New Economic Policy", LCW, 33, p. 184., Decision of the C.C., R.C.P.(B.), 12 January 1922. Published in Pravda No. 12, 17 January 1922; Lenin's Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973, first printed 1965, Volume 33, pp. 186–196.

[12] Ibid.,

[13] A. James Gregor, Marxism, Fascism & Totalitarianism: Chapters in the Intellectual History of Radicalism, Stanford: CA, Stanford University Press, 2008, p. 55-56

[14] Ibid.,

[15] Zickel, Raymond E (1991). Soviet Union a Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress. Federal Research Division. pp. 64. Important to note is that Marxist theory sees the revolution from an evolutionary perspective.

[16] Evans. Soviet Marxism-Leninism: the decline of an ideology. ABC-CLIO, 1993. p. 29-45

[17] Richman. “War Communism to NEP: the road from serfdom.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies 5, no.1, 1981. p. 89-97

[18] Ruthchild and Goldberg. “Women’s Suffrage and Revolution in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917.” Aspasia 1, no.1, 2007. p. 1-35

[19] Mandel. Trotsky as alternative. Verso, 1995. p.32.

[20] Roberts. The Soviet Union and the origins of the Second World War: Russo-German relations and the road to war, 1933-1941. Macmillan International Higher Education, 1995. p.62

  • Ascher, Abraham. The revolution of 1905: Russia in disarray. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1994.
  • Blumenberg, Werner. Karl Marx: an illustrated biography. Verso, 2000.
  • Douzinas, Costas, and Slavoj Žižek. "The idea of communism." (2010). Verso Books, 2010.
  • Evans, Alfred B. Soviet Marxism-Leninism: the decline of an ideology. ABC-CLIO, 1993.
  • Lih, Lars T. "Bolshevik Razverstka and War Communism." Slavic Review 45, no. 4 (1986): 673-688.
  • Mandel, Ernest. Trotsky as alternative. Verso, 1995.
  • Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, and Samuel Moore. Manifesto of the communist party. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972.
  • Medvedev, Roy A. The October Revolution. Columbia University Press, 1979.
  • Raleigh, Donald J. Experiencing Russia's civil war: politics, society, and revolutionary culture in Saratov, 1917-1922. Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Richman, Sheldon L. "War Communism to NEP: the road from serfdom." The Journal of Libertarian Studies 5, no. 1 (1981): 89-97.
  • Roberts, Geoffrey. The Soviet Union and the origins of the Second World War: Russo-German relations and the road to war, 1933–1941. Macmillan International Higher Education, 1995.
  • Ruthchild, Rochelle Goldberg. "Women's Suffrage and Revolution in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917." Aspasia 1, no. 1 (2007): 1-35.
  • Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian revolution. Haymarket Books, 2008.
  • Wade, Rex A. The Russian Revolution, 1917. Vol. 53. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Blumenberg, Werner. Karl Marx: an illustrated biography. Verso, 2000.

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