"A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism." The famous opening line to The Communist Manifesto evokes the expectations and fears that have been associated with European communism. Published in 1848 amid a tumultuous period of political unrest across the continent, this polemical pamphlet was an idealistic call to arms directed at an emerging male working class ("the proletariat") that was identified with the growth of industrial capitalism. The authors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, predicted that this new class would become the agent of a revolutionary transformation of the existing social order and that they would in turn create a new form of society in their own image: communism. This they foresaw would be an egalitarian proletarian civilization that abolished divisions based upon private property and the market and in which oppressive states would disappear to be replaced by "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." All other social groups would disappear, in particular the industrial middle class ("the bourgeoisie"), which they identified as the dominant force in the modern world. The struggle to create this new form of equal society, as close to perfect freedom as possible, would be one of the most titanic and final in human history.
Karl Marx and the Origins of Modern Communism
In articulating this powerful vision of a future society, the authors of the Manifesto appropriated the concept of communism to themselves—so much so that communism and Marxism have often been taken as inseparable, if not synonymous, establishing a line of political thinkers and activists from Marx onward who contributed to the development of both. This link was strengthened further after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet regime (U.S.S.R.) in Russia, which claimed to be creating an authentic communist society in direct connection with Marx's ideas, and by political movements that sought to spread that revolution worldwide. Communism seemed to become an established feature of European political culture and conflict. Its significant impact on European societies was deepened yet further by the spread of Soviet-style regimes to most of Eastern Europe after 1945, which suggested that the most significant political choice of modern times was between accepting and rejecting communism. However, the reality of life under these dictatorships was increasingly at odds with the ideals that they supposedly stood for. Any sense of permanence was then shattered in the period from 1989 to 1991 by the complete collapse of these states and of most of the communist movements elsewhere in Europe. From the perspective of the early twenty-first century the whole conception of Marxist communism in its European context appears redundant as a form of political theory and practice.
The above description serves as a useful starting point, reflecting an image of communism that has dominated current understanding of it. But not all communists have been Marxists, and not all Marxists have been communists. In reality communism has been a more complex and contested doctrine, as was evident even when The Communist Manifesto was written.
In fact, hardly any single element of the Manifesto 's conceptualization of communism was truly novel—including the use of the term itself. It was already used by a variety of minority groups across Europe, religious as well as political, to indicate an egalitarian, communally organized society. Marx and Engels took it from socialism, which developed from Enlightenment thinking as a rejection of liberalism and in reaction to the failure of the French Revolution of 1789 to produce a more complete social transformation. From Gracchus Babeuf's ill-fated Conspiracy of the Equals in 1796 and his attempt to produce a "commune," communism became a term indicating the most extreme end of the spectrum of French socialist thought. It indicated those groups most committed to the complete rejection of existing society and a belief that violent means were needed to achieve this goal. As such Marx and Engels's use of communist derived from their attempt to identify their own particular brand of thinking within the socialist market. More particularly, the Manifesto was published as the badge of a tiny organization they had founded, the German Communist League. At the same time, other groups, such as that of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, also described themselves as communist.
Other ideas in the Manifesto also predated Marx and Engels in socialist thinking: that industrialization was transforming human relations; the identification of the working class as agents of change; the idea of a class struggle and that a "dictatorship of the proletariat" would be required before communism could be achieved. Nor was their very brief and generalized description of the nature of a future communist society particularly novel. They also included a series of immediate demands made by the league, including universal male suffrage, that were even less unusual. As it turned out, Marx and Engels had misread the immediate prospects for revolutions of the type they predicted. The year 1848 did not mark the start of the final crisis of capitalism as they conceived of it; in fact capitalism was only just developing, and that crisis was to be endlessly postponed.
What made Marx's version of communism distinctive was his bold claim that it embraced a "scientific" worldview and the fact that he placed his analysis of communism in a much broader context. The latter reflected his major preoccupation in life, which was the analysis of contemporary society and of trends in its development. He engaged with the most significant intellectual movements of his age. In addition to French socialism, he brought German philosophy, British political economy, and above all the new methods and language of the natural sciences into a brilliant synthesis. Marx described the result as "scientific socialism," which he distinguished from the "utopianism" of his many forebears and rivals. His aim was to unify theory and practice, to marry the analysis of society to political action. This was what made Marx and Engels's analysis of the coming communist society so powerful: their brand of socialism would succeed not because of mere striving and wishful thinking but because it was based in scientific study and represented the culmination of an inevitable trend in the modern world. Accordingly the Manifesto contained little discussion of political organization or revolutionary activity. Instead it presented communism as the direct product of a process of historical change involving a class struggle that was rooted in the effects of industrialization. The working class was destined to become a majority in society, and it would be bound, in the face of obvious economic oppression, to demand change, which could only be achieved by seizing economic and political power. In this view societies passed through great epochs: as feudalism had given way to capitalism, so capitalism would give way to communism. It was this faith in the inevitability of communism, as predicted by scientific socialism, that was Marx's great contribution. From it the possibility of communism as a political ideology in its own right and as a secular religion could be fashioned, but this did not happen immediately.
Ironically, after the collapse of the German Communist League in 1850 The Communist Manifesto remained largely unread until rediscovered later as a prophetic work. No new political creed and form of political organization followed its publication, nor did Marx or Engels wish to separate themselves from other revolutionary currents. In fact, no other movements describing themselves as "communist" appeared again for seventy years. Nevertheless, the use of the term communism did resurface, but it was largely used by individuals and movements that were unconnected with Marx's ideas. The Russian anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin had used the term as part of his early political lexicon. Again he used communism rather loosely to indicate a future form of egalitarian society; decentralized and communally organized, it would be free from domination by the propertied classes and above all from a dictatorial state. Bakunin argued that the peasantry, and not just the working class, could be revolutionary agents and that communism could be based on peasant institutions. However, by the time the International Working Men's Association (IWMA, 1864–1876) was formed, Bakunin had changed his views. The First International, as it became known, was an attempt to create cooperation between all the European political groups that claimed to speak on behalf of the working class, but within a few years the organization foundered in a welter of internal disputes.
By the 1880s, however, a fully fledged version of anarchist or "libertarian" communism had appeared that was most closely associated with another Russian revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin. As well as expanding the theoretical basis of anarchist thinking, Kropotkin also provided a critique of the state-centered approach of socialist communism to revolution. He argued that the state must be destroyed for a communist society to exist, as the state in any form was always an oppressive force. In contrast, Marx and Engels, and their later followers, asserted that the state needed to be captured and used by the workers in the "dictatorship of the proletariat" of the revolution. It would then "wither away" as the emergence of communism made it either completely or partly redundant. Other non-Marxist socialist movements also espoused forms of communism, most notably the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), who appeared in Russia in 1902. Following in the footsteps of the Russian Populists of the 1860s and 1870s and writers such as Alexander Herzen, who had again argued that the peasantry could be the basis of a revolutionary society, the SRs proposed an agrarian form of socialism that would be based upon village communes. Once again, a perfect society was the aim, though the nature of that society and the means to achieve it were quite distinct from Marxist communism.
Marxism and European Socialism
If not all communists were Marxists by the 1880s, more strangely, hardly any Marxists actually called themselves communists at this time. Most mainstream socialists began to describe themselves as Marxists, but hardly any labeled themselves as "communists." From 1850 until his death in 1883, Marx himself never again felt the need to distinguish his notion of socialism as communist. This reflected the passing of a particular moment in the late 1840s but also the way in which socialism was developing. Though falsely welcomed, by Marx as well as many others, as the first genuinely "proletarian revolution," the horrific aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871 largely dealt a death blow to the idea of "spontaneous" insurrection as a path to socialism. There was also the realization that the vaguely defined working class would not automatically opt for socialism and that organization was required to win over workers to a cause previously espoused by small groups of intellectuals. Accordingly European socialists created permanent political bodies that could attract mass support and campaign for change. By the late 1880s the most influential model was provided by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), first formed in 1875. And by the 1890s social democrat movements had appeared in every major European country. Although formed on national lines—reflecting the consolidation of nation-states and of national economies in Europe—they also joined together in the Second International. This was formed in 1889, during a conference to celebrate and examine the achievements of the French Revolution of 1789, as a confederation of socialist parties. Every party was officially committed to a revolutionary Marxist analysis and theoretically to the notion that socialism would lead to a society without classes, private property, and the oppressive state. Whatever appearances might suggest, however, this did not represent the triumph of a communist version of socialism.
Marxist orthodoxy in the International was adapted for everyday purposes by a series of interpreters and popularizers, the most prominent of whom were Engels (until his death in 1895), August Bebel, G. V. Plekhanov, and Karl Kautsky. Indeed Kautsky's The Class Struggle was the bible for social democrat activity, though it is doubtful to what degree the rank and file of these movements was really aware of the nuances of even this version of Marxism. The analysis of capitalist society, the revolutionary mission of the proletariat, the role of class struggle in causing change, and the inevitable triumph of socialism were all there, as was the language of science in which the whole was couched. Also present was the "stages" view of historical and economic development, but here Marx's essentially economic analysis was qualified by a more practical political approach. The leading spokesmen of the Second International believed that not just a capitalist society but a liberal democratic ("bourgeois democratic") political system was required before real socialism could be achieved. Within such a system the workers' movement could develop and gain influence and eventually power. The state could be conquered by essentially peaceful means, using the growing numerical superiority of the working class, and the socialist stage could then be attempted. This downplayed the need for a seizure of power by force and reformulated the notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat. The aim was still a socialist revolution and eventually a communist society, but these were now longer-term aims that awaited a crisis of capitalism. The immediate priority was to organize politically and economically, to campaign for liberal democratic reforms, and to obtain immediate improvements in the lives of workers. The centrality of class struggle was further qualified by other issues. European imperialism and the threat of war became major preoccupations. In fact, the desire to prevent war through working-class solidarity across national boundaries became the major preoccupation of the Second International. And for the first time, equality between the sexes also became a significant issue for mainstream Marxists. Both August Bebel and Engels wrote tracts on the "woman question," and an increasing number of socialist-feminist women followed suit. In 1907 Clara Zetkin, the leading socialist-feminist of the SPD, organized the Socialist Women's International to campaign for working women's rights and female suffrage. However, insistence on the primacy of class over gender also divided social democrats. Some parties, led by the Austrians, rejected separate organizations for women and resisted the call for women to receive the vote. Many female activists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, also argued that revolution would automatically bring gender equality and that campaigns on women's issues were simply a diversion.
Small groups of dissenters within social democracy took different elements of Kautsky's ideas and pursued them to different conclusions. Revisionists within the SPD, particularly Eduard Bernstein, questioned the very possibility of revolution, let alone its inevitability in modern industrial capitalism, proposing as a consequence that socialists should abandon the rhetoric of a revolutionary transformation, accept the permanence of capitalism, seek legality, and participate in existing institutions with the aim of securing democracy and improvements for workers. Socialism would come through the success of capitalism, as a means to redistribute its products more fairly, rather than through its collapse. These were still radical aims for the time, and the growth of social democrat representation in western European countries with parliamentary institutions and a working-class franchise lent plausibility to this strategy. Even so, revisionism was rejected by the mainstream as a heresy and even more vigorously by other factions that took seriously the revolutionary rhetoric of social democracy. For them, socialists should make revolution a reality by taking more active immediate steps to take power and overturn capitalist society. What they really rejected was the deterministic idea that revolution would come about through a process of inevitable historical change; instead it had to be made by revolutionary activists. A variety of factions and leaders became associated with this more forceful approach, the best known being the German Spartacists led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the Russian Bolsheviks headed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin. But none designated themselves as "Communists" or sought separation from social democracy. Even in Russia, where the social democrats divided into two separate Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903, both groups maintained their adherence to the International, and the ideological differences between them were far less than they were later to be presented. What was distinctive was the Bolsheviks' approach to organization and revolutionary activity. Lenin believed that conventional parties, particularly in the conditions of the tsarist autocracy, were futile and that workers had to be led by a "revolutionary vanguard" of tightly organized revolutionary professionals—the conspiratorial and military overtones were striking and prophetic.
In 1902 Lenin published What Is To Be Done, in which he laid out his ideas relating to the role of the party and party organization in the revolutionary movement. Little read at the time, it was to become a founding work of Leninism, the most significant ideological expression of twentieth-century communism. But while social democracy remained united, it served to constrain these more radical and revolutionary voices on the fringe of European socialism.
Splits in the European Social Democratic Movement
World War I and its aftermath shattered the delicate unity of the International. With the outbreak of war the overwhelming majority of socialists abandoned their pacifist and antinationalist stance. With the exception of the Serbian and both Russian movements, all the parties pledged themselves to their respective war efforts and in many cases joined governments of national unity. They gained respectability, a new status, and shared responsibility for government actions. But as the war progressed and antiwar sentiment grew, they also faced growing dissent from within their own ranks. War deprivation, inflation, labor disputes, and growing social and political unrest in many European states divided socialists. In Germany an antiwar group broke away from the SPD to form the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD, 1916). As the war dragged on to its close in late 1918, uncoordinated social and political unrest broke out in much of Europe, starting in Russia in February 1917 when the tsar abdicated and was replaced by a weak liberal government supported by the Mensheviks. Governments also collapsed in much of central and eastern Europe and were weakened elsewhere, including in states such as Spain that had been neutral in the war, creating power vacuums that were often filled by a plethora of ad hoc committees. Many of those involved in this so-called council communism in countries such as Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Italy were dissident socialists, but militants from other political movements, radicalized soldiers, and the previously uncommitted also participated. Women were also prominent in many of the activities of these committees, which challenged state authority and became a chief feature of the revolutionary unrest that gripped parts of Europe until 1921. They were heterogeneous in both their participants and in their political outlook, taking different forms in different places and at different times. In Austria, Germany, and Hungary during 1919 to 1921 workers and soldiers' councils became the basis for revolutionary insurrections that were suppressed by counter-revolutionary force. Elsewhere protest was essentially syndicalist in nature, with workplace committees formed as part of economic activities. These were significant in Britain, France, and Belgium and most widespread in northern Italy, where a wave of factory occupations spread across northern cities in late 1920. Revolutionary activists were galvanized by these events, even where they fell far short of an outright seizure of power. Once again the long-awaited crisis of capitalism seemed at hand. It was out of this chaotic situation that self-proclaimed communist movements and ideas appeared once more.
Bolshevism and the Emergence of the Communist International
It was Bolshevism that self-consciously promoted itself as a model for a new kind of revolutionary Marxist party and ideology. After February 1917 and considerable discussion within the movement, the Bolsheviks declared their opposition to the liberal government. While the Mensheviks concentrated on the liberal-democratic phase of revolution, Lenin declared that this could be skipped and that a "workers and peasants state" could be established. In an agrarian country, the Bolsheviks substituted the revolutionary party for the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. Never a mass movement, the Bolsheviks gathered support among soldiers and civilians disillusioned with the war and, crucially, in the committees (soviets) that sprang up in the major cities. Converts to the Bolshevik cause included the Menshevik leader Leon Trotsky. With less success they also tried to extend their influence into those parts of the countryside where peasants had seized control of the land and their localities. By October 1917, with the government discredited by its own failures to end the war and carry out social reforms, the Bolsheviks were able to seize control in the main cities by force.
This was really only the beginning of the Bolsheviks' struggle to secure power, let alone to fulfilling their declared aim of creating a communist society and a world revolution. This process was accompanied by the creation of a mythology that legitimized the violent revolutionary methods of the Bolsheviks as the only path to communism. Lenin's main theoretical contribution was laid out in two works, The April Theses and The State and Revolution, both published in 1917. Once again theory and practice were unified. Bolshevik leaders, particularly Lenin, were lauded as the only true revolutionaries and interpreters of Marxist thought, farsighted and infallible in their judgments. In that sense successful revolution represented the triumph of the will of these leaders, and an authentic socialist revolution leading to communism could be carried out only by Bolsheviks. Similarly the party they led was the only representative of the interests of the working class. Indeed the party was needed to make up for the deficiencies of workers, who, left to their own devices, would not develop a "revolutionary consciousness." The path to true communism was through true bolshevism, and all other claims to revolutionary status were therefore fraudulent. Bolshevism's minority status and tenuous links to mainstream Marxism and socialism were glossed over, as was the fact that other groups within Russia—as elsewhere—also claimed revolutionary status as "communists": particularly the Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchist communists who rejected a centralized state and were supported by sections of the peasantry. By March 1918 the Bolsheviks began to describe themselves as the Communist Party.
In fact, the real route to power came through pragmatic compromises and a bloody civil war that lasted until 1921 in which the real instrument that established Bolshevik rule was not the party but the Red Army. The result was that opponents of all political persuasions, from the ultraleft to the tsarist right, were either crushed or marginalized. The main claim to the primacy of what after Lenin's death in 1924 became called the Marxist-Leninist approach to revolutionary communism came from the success of the Bolsheviks in seizing power in Russia and retaining it. Not surprisingly, all interpretations of communism had to contend with Lenin's ideas and the Soviet regime. However, there was no unquestioning acceptance of Bolshevik ideology and practice; far from it. From the start, questions abounded as to whether Leninism was Marxism or even socialism, and whether the Soviet Union was evolving as a communist society. For a majority of European Marxists, who continued to call themselves socialists, and for many who called themselves communists, the answers to these questions were negative. Kautsky, for example, was quick to condemn both Leninism and the Soviet Union as perversions of Marxism and socialism. Likewise, as a witness to the destruction of Russian anarchist communism at the hands of the Bolsheviks, Kropotkin wrote to Lenin denouncing the regime as a betrayal of communist ideas of freedom and humanity. Lenin's response to these critics, at home and abroad, was to denounce them as utopians in "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder, published in 1920.
Paradoxically, the international attractions of Leninism as a universal ideology were increased by the fact that the Bolshevik revolution proved to be an exception. Short-lived Soviet governments were proclaimed in Munich and Hungary, but Bolshevik-style revolution was defeated everywhere outside Russia. Mainstream social democrats often played a pivotal role in this process, eschewing violence and opting instead to secure liberal-democratic regimes in power. The result was a deep and enduring division between the majority of social democrats and the dissenters. It was institutionalized in 1919 by the formation of a new Communist International (Comintern) based in Moscow. Its creation was based on the notion that Bolshevik-style revolution had failed not because developments in Russia were a peculiar case but because other countries lacked a proper Bolshevik party. Therefore the Comintern was to be a world Communist Party organized on Bolshevik lines, with different sections in each country, which aimed to spread Bolshevism beyond the borders of Soviet Russia. Adherents in each country were required to agree to a twenty-one-point charter based on Leninist principles of organization and activity. Between 1919 and 1921 Communist Parties of this "new type" were created in most European countries, drawing in mostly dissident socialists but also others who saw Bolshevism as the path to revolution.
Leninism offered a path to power, but what to do with it was a more difficult matter. The formulations of Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky on how communism was to be created or what it would look like in practice had been as vague as those of all the preceding generations of Marxists who assumed that it would emerge out of an advanced industrial society rather than a rural one. In reality, they had no blueprint. The regime that emerged in Russia called itself a Soviet democracy with a constitutional apparatus. Significantly, neither the U.S.S.R. nor later Communist states actually claimed to be communist societies. Their governments argued that they were living through a socialist stage, "the dictatorship of the proletariat" again, and were in the process of building communism. In practice this meant the permanent dictatorship of the party and the creation of a party-bureaucratic state that, in theory if not in practice, subsumed all aspects of society to it. Nor could any rivals—not just political but also religious—be tolerated. Throughout all the considerable changes, conflicts, and real debates about policy that took place in Soviet society and government, this was to be the constant reality that inhibited pluralism and independence, even during the genuinely radical early phase of Bolshevism, with its cultural and social experimentation. Symptomatic of the trend that set in was the case of Alexandra Kollontai, a strong advocate of the equality that the Soviet regime promised to women. Though initially prominent in the party and government, she and her writings were gradually marginalized, as was the question of real equality.
After Lenin's death in 1924 the question of how to create a communist society in a country that lacked an industrial working class was at the heart of the struggle for the party leadership. Although a political and personality dispute as well, the three main contenders—Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin—all shared this basic goal but differed over how it was to be achieved. Bukharin favored a gradualist approach, while Trotsky argued that a "permanent revolution" was required—a swift transformation and a determined effort to secure the spread of the revolution worldwide. Rather than contributing wholly new ideas to these disputes, Stalin maneuvered between them and emerged triumphant. His approach was domestic and sought to create a specifically Russian version of communism, "socialism in one country." However, the second revolution that he announced in 1928 borrowed heavily from Trotsky's ideas in terms of the elimination of the peasantry through the collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization. The application of state power to centralize economic and social control that followed could only be achieved through considerable force and at the cost of millions of lives and was accompanied by a Stalinist terror that eliminated political enemies both real and imagined. Ideological conformity to Marxism-Leninism, as now defined by Stalin, became a prerequisite for survival. Nonconformist communists were accordingly particular targets, usually labeled as "Trotskyists" whether they were followers of Trotsky or not. This created a permanent division among Marxist communists, all of whom saw themselves as the heirs of Lenin and Bolshevism, between those who accepted the Soviet Union as it developed under Stalin and those who did not.
These disputes and developments in the Soviet Union inevitably impacted on the wider international communist movement. Stalin was mostly contemptuous of the Comintern, seeing foreign communists as inadequate and other communist parties as failures and sources of dissent. And in terms of recreating Bolshevik success this was a correct assessment, as no other successful revolution occurred in Europe despite some serious efforts in the early 1920s. The International went through various strategic twists and turns until it was finally dissolved in 1943, all of which proved futile and, for Stalin, simply proved his point. Individual parties did often play a prominent political role, particularly in liberal-democratic conditions. But for the most part international communism provided a threat and a justification for the authoritarian and Fascist movements that rose in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s—a threat that was without any real substance. After 1928, developments in the Soviet Union increasingly divided communists. On the one hand, many were appalled at the excesses of Stalinism and either became dissenters or abandoned communism completely. But on the other hand, the apparent achievements of collectivization and industrialization could also be a matter of pride and an example that communism offered a real alternative to the unemployment and economic depression that gripped Europe after 1929. As a result, and encouraged by the Comintern, Communist Parties turned in on themselves in pursuit of dissidents—many of whom were expelled as Trotskyists. Some formed small rival Communist groups, and Trotsky himself, in exile until his murder by Soviet agents in 1940, attempted to form a rival International.
For non-Russian communists questions about why the Bolshevik revolution could not be repeated and of the direction taken by Soviet communism became central preoccupations. Most of the discourse of the orthodox Communist Parties simply aped that of the Soviet government and the International. In particular, the idea that the Bolshevik path was simply unrepeatable in the conditions in the more economically and socially advanced societies in the rest of Europe was officially unacceptable. Even so, some creative intellectuals, often called the Western Marxists, did flourish. Chief among them were Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, György Lukács, and some members of the so-called Frankfurt School (particularly Herbert Marcuse). They were active in the first flood of revolutionary enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment, when there was more space for creative thinking within communist movements. Questions about the significance of culture and aesthetics in Marxist analysis concerned them as much as, if not more than, economics and politics. They were aware that cultural and social circumstances often conditioned political possibilities. Often implicitly, rather than explicitly, they offered a critique of Leninism in all its variations (including Trotsky's). Gramsci in particular, without ever rejecting the Soviet model, suggested a path to revolution that contained the same sense of human agency as Lenin's views but rejected its insurrectionary and conspiratorial strategy as well as the primacy placed on the material conditions necessary for revolutionary change. In complex Western societies, Gramsci argued, revolution was intimately bound up with a competition or struggle for cultural dominance (egemonia ). In order for socialism to be established it had to be as consensual as possible—more akin to the triumph of the Italian Renaissance. Such thinking remained a minority concern and was decisively marginalized after 1928 in the drive to impose Stalinist orthodoxy on all communists. Either purged from their parties, recanting their views, exiled or imprisoned by their governments, they were silenced and their writings ignored by contemporaries.
In many respects, the fund of genuinely new ideas about communism, in Europe at least, began to dry up by the 1940s. The consolidation of Soviet rule under Stalin and the failure of communism outside of Russia contributed to that feeling. But once again a world war transformed the fortunes of communism in Europe. The war effort allowed Stalin to combine Soviet rule and Russian nationalism—a potent combination that was also to be successful outside of Europe after 1945. The isolation of the Soviet Union was also ended between 1945 and 1949, when Soviet rule spread to Eastern Europe under military occupation by the Red Army, and Yugoslavia was liberated by Communist partisans under Marshall Tito. In Western Europe as well, Communists also gained greater respectability and popularity as a result of the prominent role they played in the civilian resistance movements in parts of occupied Europe. Powerful and popular parties developed in France, Greece, and Italy. After 1945 Communists even participated in governments, though they were ejected by 1947 as the Cold War developed and political divisions hardened. Increasingly, political choices were dominated by attitudes toward communism, both domestically and internationally. This was, in fact, to mark the highpoint of communist success and, though not clearly perceivable at the time, the trend was from then on to be decline. Both within the Soviet-style regime and within the Western Communist Parties, as well as in the wider world of communist thinking, communism ossified. And the search for renewal, and the recycling of old ideas, began to dominate.
Without World War II it is extremely unlikely that Soviet-style regimes would ever have emerged in this region. Even so, communism was not established overnight. By 1949, however, Communist Party rule prevailed throughout Eastern and Central Europe. At first many elements of Stalinist policies were imposed on the newly formed regimes: collectivization of agriculture, state economic control, the suppression of religion and class differences. But by the time of Stalin's death in 1953 it had become apparent that, due to the distinctive social, economic, and cultural conditions that existed in each of these countries, attempts to create systems in the likeness of the Soviet Union could never be completely successful. Yugoslavia was the one country in the communized part of Europe that completely escaped Soviet domination. Thanks in large measure to the partisan leader, Josip Broz, or Tito, from 1948 on Yugoslavia followed an independent course of Communist development. However, this extension of Communist rule also marked the beginnings of decline and the eventual destruction of communism as a state ideology in Europe. Following Stalin's death the problems of cultural, economic, and social stagnation steadily mounted. Opposition to Communist dictatorship also grew, including from intellectuals within party ranks who used the tools of official Marxism to dissect the failings of their own societies. The growth of dissent and the rejection of the regimes by many of their own supporters were to be key features of decline.
The central, unsolvable problem for all the Communist states became how to liberalize and renew themselves without rejecting party rule. The first serious attempt to do so came in the Soviet Union during the mid-1950s when a new premier, Nikita Khrushchev, surprised the world by denouncing the crimes of Stalinism and promising a renewal of communist ideals. The slogan "communism within a generation" was accompanied by attempts at economic reform and political liberalization. However, a conservative backlash unseated Khrushchev and destroyed the drive for reform. Similar experiments under Imre Nagy in Hungary in late 1956 and in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubcek in the spring of 1968 resulted in military intervention by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. By the 1980s all the Communist states suffered from "stagnation" (zastoy ), the term used by Russians to describe conditions under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev. Any serious belief that communism could renew itself as a state ideology had finally passed. In Poland a powerful independent trade union organization, Solidarity, emerged in the early 1980s and soon posed a serious challenge to the regime. It contained a coalition of ideas ranging from Catholicism to dissident Marxism. Only direct military rule was able temporarily to contain it.
The End of Communism
What would turn out to be a significant shift in Soviet leadership occurred in 1985, when the reform-minded and relatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev became head of state. His plans for more open debate (glasnost ) about new ideas and policies were accompanied by an attempt at restructuring (perestroika ) the Soviet economic system. Gorbachev also made waves on the foreign policy front. Early in his administration he made it clear that the Soviet Union was no longer going to impose its policies over Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, which set in motion the dissolution of the political, economic, and military ties that had formerly bound these countries to the Soviet Union. By 1989 nearly all the Communist regimes had imploded, and the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited Germany, effectively ending the Cold War. The Soviet Union was, once again, isolated as the only Communist state. However, in 1991 a failed military coup by conservative hard-liners, dismayed at Gorbachev's reforms and the loss of the Eastern European regimes, precipitated a final crisis. Gorbachev was sidelined, and more radical groups within the Soviet Communist Party, led by Boris Yeltsin, announced the dissolution of the regime.
Developments in Western communism took a parallel but distinctive course. After 1949 the hopes of spreading revolution to the West became ever more remote, confirmed by the defeat of the Greek Communists in the civil war of 1944–1949. Though still linked to the Soviet Union, the trend in Western parties was for increasing independence and a search for a more distinctively "Western" approach to communism. During the 1940s and 1950s, the atmosphere of the Cold War and the political restrictions it brought about inhibited free discussion of Marxist ideas in Europe—ironically paralleling the situation in the Soviet bloc. But by the late 1950s and 1960s, when de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union eased the Cold War, many Western parties adopted a policy of National Communism in an attempt to adapt themselves to specific conditions in different countries. This was due to a number of reasons, including rejection of many of the tenets of Leninism as unsuitable, and a reaction to many of the aspects of Soviet rule and to the failure of liberalization. Western parties also faced competition from dissenting communist movements—Trotskyites and also new models derived from the Third World (Maoism, Castroism). Communists also found themselves radically out of step with the long economic boom that transformed Western European capitalism from the early 1960s onwards. Many orthodox Communists embraced Eurocommunism, which broke entirely with the Soviets and was particularly influential in Italy and Spain. This involved the frantic rediscovery of many of the Western Marxists of the 1920s, particularly Antonio Gramsci, who was particularly promoted by the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, in a search for distinctive ideas. However, these developments came too late and only tended to divide Western Communists. By the 1980s the trend in all parties was toward decline and, in many cases, eventual disappearance.
Beyond some very basic ideas, there has never been a consensus about communism, nor a fixed body of doctrine that has underpinned it. Historically it has been a concept in a constant state of redefinition, used and interpreted in a diversity of ways. Even the appropriation of the term by Soviet-style regimes was but one definition of what communism could mean. It would now seem to have exhausted the possibilities for further renewal. The remaining standard-bearers for communism in Europe reflect this eclectic heritage. So-called unreconstructed Stalinists remain as a dying breed. Where communist parties remain they have tended to downplay their Marxist-Leninist credentials and have embraced the broader agendas of the feminist, ecological, and antiglobalization movements. It has been their erstwhile opponents on the dissident Far Left, anarchist communists, and "Trotskyites" who have retained their revolutionary purity on their own terms. All these are vestiges of the past. Whether a new form of thought that calls itself "communist" can ever emerge in Europe remains an unknown.
See also Anarchism ; Authoritarianism ; Communism: Latin America ; Marxism .
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