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Communism is a type of command economy in which the government owns and controls the great majority of factories, farms, and other businesses. Public ownership and control over the means of production permits the government to dictate society's answers to the basic economic questions of what, how, and for whom to produce. Theoretical communism is grounded in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who co-authored The Communist Manifesto in 1848.[1] In 1867 Marx published Capital, the first of a three-volume set of books. This trilogy more fully described his economic interpretation of history, which is often referred to as scientific socialism. Scientific socialism took different forms in different countries during the twentieth century.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, was the world's first communist country. Its brand of communism was shaped by early leaders such as Vladimir

I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin. During Stalin's tyrannical reign over the Soviet Union, which stretched from 1927 to 1953, the Soviets built a command economy. The Marxist foundations of this command economy were public ownership of the means of production, and

PRIMARY DOCUMENT: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Argue against Private Property

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat. . . .

The distinguishing feature of communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single phrase: Abolition of private property.

The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

centralized decision making by Gosplan—the powerful state planning agency. Stalin stamped out the remnants of private incentives and private enterprise in the countryside by collectivizing agriculture. Entire villages were absorbed into massive state-owned farms. In the cities businesses were expropriated and converted into state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Under Gosplan, rigid five-year plans emphasized the production of military and capital goods at the expense of consumer goods.

In the mid-1980s Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to rescue the faltering Soviet economy with a series of economic and political reforms. Economic reforms, called perestroika, restructured the Soviet economy to include market-oriented incentives to promote economic growth and modernization. Perestroika encouraged some private enterprise, lifted many wage and price controls, reduced subsidies to SOEs, expanded global commercial contacts, and empowered plant managers to make their own production decisions. Gorbachev also introduced national campaigns to reduce corruption, alcoholism, and other drags on the fragile economy. Despite these economic reforms and a series of political reforms called glasnost, the Soviet economy continued its economic tailspin. In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved, and the 15 republics that had comprised the USSR soon became independent countries.

China became a communist country in 1949 after a prolonged civil war. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, Chinese communism, often referred to as Maoism, wavered between the pragmatic and the dogmatic. Under Maoism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had a monopoly on political and economic power. Agriculture was collectivized into “people's communes.” Most aspects of village life were scrutinized by the CCP to weed out counterrevolutionary activity, particularly activity that supported private incentives or profit. China's industrial sector endured a similar conversion with a systematic dismantling of private enterprises and the creation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). By the mid-1970s China's economy was reeling from political turmoil and inefficient central planning. Shortly after Mao's death in 1976, however, a more reform-minded CCP leadership embraced certain market solutions to the nation's economic woes.

  • [1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Englels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Pocket Books, 1964), 81-82.
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