The modern form of Communism (written with a capital C ) began to develop with the split (1903) within the Russian Social Democratic Labor party into factions of Bolshevism and Menshevism. The more radical wing, the Bolsheviks, were led by Lenin and advocated immediate and violent revolution to bring about the downfall of capitalism and the establishment of an international socialist state. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917 gave them the leadership in socialist action. They constituted the Communist party in 1918 (see Communist party, in the USSR).
Meanwhile World War I had shaken the socialist movement as a whole by splitting those who cooperated with the governments in waging the war from those who maintained a stand for revolution against all capitalist governments. Chief among the stalwart revolutionists were the Communist party in Russia and the Spartacus party (later the Communist party) in Germany. The establishment of a working socialist state in Russia tended to give that country leadership, and Leninism grew stronger. Communist revolts immediately after the war failed in Germany, and the briefly successful Communist state under Béla Kun in Hungary was also repressed with great bloodshed.
The revolutionary socialists now broke completely with the moderate majority of the movement, withdrew from the Second International, and formed (1919) the Third International, or Comintern, in 1919. Henceforth, the term Communism was applied to the ideology of the parties founded under the aegis of the Comintern. Their program called for the uniting of all the workers of the world for the coming world revolution, which would be followed by the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat and state socialism. Ultimately there would develop a harmonious classless society, and the state would wither away.
The Communist parties were organized on a hierarchical basis, with active cells of members as the broad base; they were made up only of the elite—those approved by the higher members of the party as being reliable, active, and subject completely to party rule. Communist parties were formed in countries throughout the world and were particularly active in trying to win control of labor unions and in fomenting labor unrest.
Despite the existence of the Comintern, however, the Communist party in the USSR adopted, under Joseph Stalin, the theory of "socialism in one country," which asserted the possibility of building a true Communist system in one country alone. This departure from Marxist internationalism was challenged by Leon Trotsky, whose theory of "permanent revolution" stressed the necessity of world revolution. After Trotsky was expelled (1929) from the Soviet Union, he founded a Fourth, or Trotskyist, International to rival the Comintern.
Stalin's program of building the Soviet Union as the model and base of Communism in the world had the effect of tying Communist and Soviet policy even more closely together, an effect intensified by the "monolithic unity" produced by the party purges of the 1930s. It became clearly evident in that decade that in practice Communism, contrary to the hopes of theorists and intellectuals, had created in the USSR a giant totalitarian state that dominated every aspect of life and denied the ideal of individual liberty.
Except for the Mongolian People's Republic (see Mongolia, republic), no other Communist state was created before World War II. The Chinese Communist party was founded in 1921 and began a long struggle for power with the Kuomintang. However, it received little aid from the USSR, and it was not to achieve its goal until 1949.
In the late 1920s and early 30s the Communist parties followed a policy of total hostility to the socialists, and in Germany this was one factor that facilitated the rise of the Nazis. In 1935, however, the Comintern dictated a change in policy, and the Communists began to work with other leftist and liberal parties for liberal legislation and government, as in the Popular Front government in France.
In World War II the USSR became an ally of the Western capitalist nations after Germany attacked it in 1941. As part of its cooperation with the Allies, the USSR brought about (1943) the dissolution of the Comintern. Hopes for continued cooperation, intrinsic in the formation of the United Nations, were dashed, however, by a widening rift between the Soviet bloc and the Western democracies, especially the United States, after the war (see cold war).
Communism had been vastly strengthened by the winning of many new nations into the zone of Soviet influence and strength in Eastern Europe. Governments strictly modeled on the Soviet Communist plan were installed in the "satellite" states—Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany. A Communist government was also created under Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, but Tito's independent policies led to the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform, which had replaced the Comintern, and Titoism was labeled deviationist.
By 1950 the Chinese Communists held all of China except Taiwan, thus controlling the most populous nation in the world. A Communist administration was also installed in North Korea, and fighting between the People's Republic of Korea (Communist) and the southern Republic of Korea exploded in the Korean War (1950–53), fought between Communist and United Nations troops. Other areas where rising Communist strength provoked dissension and in some cases actual fighting include Malaya, Laos, many nations of the Middle East and Africa, and, especially, Vietnam, where the United States intervened to aid the South Vietnamese regime against Communist guerrillas and North Vietnam (see Vietnam War). In many of these poor countries, Communists attempted, with varying degrees of success, to unite with nationalist and socialist forces against Western imperialism.
After the death of Stalin in 1953 some relaxation of Soviet Communist strictures seemed to occur, and at the 20th party congress (1956) Premier Nikita Khruschchev denounced the methods of Stalin and called for a return to the principles of Lenin, thus presaging some change in Communist methods, although none in fundamental ideology. A resurgence of nationalist feeling within the Soviet bloc—as was vividly demonstrated by the bloodily suppressed Hungarian uprising of 1956—ultimately had to be acknowledged by the USSR. However, while the USSR began to allow some limited freedom of action to the countries of Eastern Europe, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated its determination to prevent serious challenges to its domination.
Ideological differences between China and the USSR became increasingly apparent in the 1960s and 70s, with China portraying itself as a leader of the underdeveloped world against the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, both the USSR and China sought better relations with the United States in the 1970s.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.