The rise and decline of communism are contained within the 20th century. At the height of the expansion of communism, a third of the countries in the world aligned themselves with communism and the Soviet Union. 

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    This article discusses the characteristics of Communism, a brief history of communism, and a comparison of communism, socialism, and fascism.

    Communism Definition

    Communism is a type of revolutionary socialist government based on the ideas of the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Communism aims to eliminate class struggles by focusing on building a society in which the state government controls all the wealth and property while the citizens share the benefits of labor.

    The Origins of Communism

    In 1848, German philosophers Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto which described a utopian society free from the drawbacks of capitalism. Karl Marx believed that capitalism, because of its focus on individual property and profit, promoted inequality amongst citizens. He argued that people would not feel the need to compete with each other for resources and would instead work toward the common good if there was no class structure and if the state controlled all resources and means of production.

    Marx believed that the Industrial Revolution was to blame for capitalism and society’s problems. Because of the increase in dependency on machines, mass-produced goods, and factories, the proletariat faced increasing oppression.

    Proletariat refers to working-class people who suffer under capitalism. By contrast, the bourgeoisie refers to the middle/upper class who have time for leisure and materialism.

    The growth of the proletariat stemmed from the exploitation of labor by the wealthy owning class who owned the factories. Marx believed that the transition to Communism would only begin once the working class gained consciousness and took control of the means of production.

    A communist system would eliminate the income gap, put an end to the exploitation of workers by the owning class, and liberate the poor from oppression. All this would be possible because greed would no longer be a motivating factor.

    Communism Photo of Karl Marx StudySmarterFig. 1 Photograph of Karl Marx.

    Communism Meaning

    Although Marx and Engels did not differentiate between Communism and Socialism in their work, there are some important differences between the two. Likewise, while there are some similarities between Communism and Fascism, there are stark differences as well.

    In general, communist regimes have a strong central government that controls economic activity and distributes basic necessities to its citizens as it sees fit. These necessities include food, housing, medical care, and education. In a communist regime, individuals do not own private property. The community or government owns the property and citizens receive resources based on their needs. Lastly, for a communist regime to be born, a violent revolution of workers against the owning class was inevitable.

    Socialism vs. Communism

    Socialism and communism are often mixed up, but there are some key differences. Communism can be viewed as a more extreme form of socialism. Below are a few distinctions:

    • In a socialist country, people can still own property. The government controls the means of production, but that government is democratically elected instead of authoritarian.
    • Socialists aim to reform inefficient processes through democratic institutions instead of trying to overthrow the system.
    • Citizens in a socialist country will still be compensated based on their level of contribution to society and are praised for effort and innovation.

    Fascism vs. Communism

    Fascism is an ideology that has historically been closely associated with communism. Fascism is a nationalistic form of government in which a charismatic dictator rules over a society based on strict class roles. Fascism promotes the State through the conquest of other territories. In a fascist society, a person has no individual value outside of their role in society and the traditional roles of men and women are highly exaggerated.

    Private ownership is possible but it is highly dependent on an individual’s worth to the State and, even still the State controls what individuals do with their property. The one-party government controls the economy and there is no free market.

    Fascist governments control the press and media, which are used to spread positive propaganda about the State. Fascism is associated with racism and Nazism, social Darwinism, and extreme nationalism.

    Examples of Communism

    Russia and China were the earliest countries to shift towards Communism in the early 20th century. From 1940 to 1979, the Soviet Union expanded communism into Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America. Some countries who shifted to communism include Yugoslavia, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kenya, Sudan, Congo, Mozambique, Cuba, and Nicaragua.


    The first Russian revolution ousted Czar Nicholas II and replaced the czarist government with an oligarchy run by Russian nobles. The second Russian revolution of 1917, also known as the October Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin, used military force to seize power from the nobles which ended centuries of imperial rule and established the Soviet Union in 1922. The Soviet Union espoused communist ideas as a result of the impoverished proletariat's discontent with the czar's wealth and excesses. However, Lenin imposed strict government controls and conditions didn't improve.

    In 1924, Vladimir Lenin died and Joseph Stalin assumed power in the Soviet Union. His attempts to industrialize the Soviet Union through an economy controlled by the government led to famine. In order to maintain control of the state, Stalin initiated the Great Purge - a campaign to eliminate those he considered threats and members of the Communist Party that opposed his regime. Approximately one million people were executed.


    In July 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed, inspired by the Russian Revolution. However, at the time, it existed as a study group and worked within the First United Front of the Nationalist Party. Their alliance was short-lived, and the Nationalists purged the Communists from the party in 1927. When Japan invaded in 1937, the Nationalists and the CCP tried again to cooperate under the banner of the Second United Front, but this alliance was also short-lived. Instead of focusing on removing Japan, the Nationalists worked to contain the Communists and the Communists strengthened their support in rural areas.

    Support for Communism increased during World War II for several reasons:

    • Authoritarian suppression of opposition in areas controlled by Nationalists;

    • Wartime corruption;

    • The implementation of tyrannical policies.

    The CCP was praised for its attempt at land reform and its efforts against the invading Japanese. With the surrender and withdrawal of the Japanese army, the Soviet Union took control of Manchuria and would only withdraw when a communist government was installed.

    The Nationalist Party's Chiang Kai-shek and the CCP’s Mao Zedong met to discuss the creation of a post-war government. However, the two sides were not able to come to an agreement and form a coalition government due to years of distrust. By 1946, China had dissolved into civil war.

    Communism Chiang Kai-Shek StudySmarterFig. 2 Portrait of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-Shek, March 1945

    In October of 1949, the civil war ended with Mao Zedong’s rise to power and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The United States cut off all diplomatic ties to the PRC. On June 4, 1989, student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square were brutally suppressed by the Communist Chinese government. The protests ended with the deaths of hundreds to thousands of people.

    Communism Mao Zedong StudySmarterFig. 3 Portrait of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, Zhang Zhenshi, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

    US Communism Policy during the Cold War

    In response to the expansion of Soviet authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, President Harry Truman called for the containment of Communism through his proposal of the Truman Doctrine before Congress on March 12, 1947. The Truman Doctrine would later spur U.S. involvement in both the Vietnam War and Korean War. It was also the basis for U.S. Cold War policy.

    On July 5, 1950, the United States led United Nations troops into the Korean Peninsula after North Korea invaded South Korea with the intent to create a unified state under communism. The Korean War ended with a signed armistice agreement that divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, otherwise known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

    On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall falls signaling the collapse of Communism. From 1989 to 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and communist regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Benin, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Yemen fell. On Christmas Day in 1991, USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the USSR dissolved. Incoming Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, bans the Communist Party. In 1991, communist regimes in Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Congo, Kenya, and Yugoslavia also collapse. After the fall of the USSR, only five countries remained communist: North Korea, Vietnam, China, Cuba, and Laos.

    Communism Fall of Berlin Wall StudySmarterPhotograph of the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, which signaled the collapse of communism, Raphaël Thiémard, Wikimedia Commons.

    Communism - Key takeaways

    • Communism was based on the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in "The Communist Manifesto."
    • Communism aims to eliminate class struggles by focusing on building a society in which the state government controls all the wealth and property, and the citizens share the benefits of labor.
    • In 1921, communism spread to China through the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party.
    • From the 1940s to the late 1980s, Communism spread across Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America.
    • After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many Communist regimes collapsed.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Communism

    What is communism?

    Communism is a type of government that rejects capitalism and shifts control away from private ownership to government/public ownership.

    Is communism good?

    Communism seeks to address the problems seem in capitalism, especially around the exploitation of workers. However, historically, communism has been associated with abusive governments.

    Why is communism bad?

    While the theories of Communism seek to improve the quality of life for workers, in reality, many Communist regimes have created oppressive governments.

    What is the difference between socialism and communism?

    Communism is a more revolutionary form of socialism. Socialism permits private ownership and gradual change while Communism focuses on public ownership of all goods and abrupt change via revolution.

    Is communism democratic?

    Communism is more of an economic system while democracy focuses on representation and elections, so technically they are not mutually exclusive, but historically speaking, communism has been antithetical to democracy.

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    What book is credited with spreading communism?

    Who wrote the Communist Manifesto?

    The Communist Manifesto was a rejection of


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