(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


The term communism is generally applied to the Marxist-Leninist political and socioeconomic doctrines (see Marxism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilich) that guided the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) until its disintegration in 1991; these doctrines were shared by governments and political parties in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere. The term also denotes the centralized political system of China and of the former USSR and its satellites in Eastern Europe. This system was associated with the collective ownership of the means of production, central economic planning, and rule by a single political party. It was discredited almost everywhere outside China, North Korea, and Vietnam as a result of its collapse in Europe and the USSR. What remains is its Marxist ideology, shorn of its Leninist—and, in China, much of its Maoist —trappings.

Communism is an outgrowth of 19th-century socialism. It became a distinct movement after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, when a group of revolutionary socialists seized power and adopted the name Communist party of the USSR. Mongolia became a Communist state in 1921. After World War II other Communist states were established in the Eastern European countries of Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania, and in the Asian countries of China and North Korea. Communist regimes were subsequently established in Cuba; in the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (Kampuchea); and in Afghanistan. For 15 or more years pro-Soviet revolutionary governments ruled South Yemen and several African states, notably Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. In the Western Hemisphere the leftist Sandinista regime (1979-90) in Nicaragua was under substantial Soviet and Cuban influence. More recently, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez promoted an anti-American, populist, Soviet-style command economy. Although he did not explicitly label his "Bolívarian revolution" communism, it was part of a leftist trend in much of Latin America, most notably in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Early Forms of Communism

Originally, the term communism signified an ideal society in which property would be owned in common and the necessities of life shared by members of the community according to their needs. Communism in this sense dates back to classical antiquity. Plato proposed a kind of aristocratic communism in his Republic. Some of the early Christian groups held property in common. The idea of common ownership figured in Saint Thomas More's Utopia (1516). It was espoused by such religious groups as the Anabaptists in 16th-century Germany. It also inspired numerous religious and social reformers of the 19th century. These included Étienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and the comte de Saint-Simon. Their theories contributed to the 19th-century socialist movement aimed at replacing the system of private property with communal ownership. Stronger revolutionary socialist theories were expressed by François Babeuf during the French Revolution and by Louis Blanc and Auguste Blanqui later in France.

The Rise of Marxism

In their Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels applied the term communism to a final stage of socialism in which all class differences would disappear and humankind would live in harmony. Marx and Engels claimed to have discovered a scientific approach to socialism based on the laws of history. They declared that the course of history was determined by the clash of opposing forces rooted in the economic system and the ownership of property. Just as the feudal system had given way to capitalism, so in time capitalism would give way to socialism. The class struggle of the future would be between the bourgeoisie, or capitalist employers, and the proletariat, or workers. The struggle would end, according to Marx, in the socialist revolution and the attainment of full communism.

Marxism became the dominant body of thought in European socialism in the 19th century. Socialist parties grew rapidly. Despite their revolutionary theories, they began to elect representatives to national legislatures. Much controversy raged within the parties between those who felt the need for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and those who held that socialism might be achieved through gradual reforms.

European Marxists were strongly international in their outlook. They proclaimed their opposition to imperialism and militarism and declared that the workers had no fatherland. The outbreak of World War I in 1914, however, demonstrated that nationalism had a much stronger grip on the socialist parties than their theorists had realized. Except for a few radicals such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia, the party leaders and most members supported the war policies of their governments. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 enabled Lenin and his followers to seize power. At the same time, they divided world socialism into competing groups of parties—those which opted for the Russian path and those which kept to the democratic tradition.

Communism in the USSR

Two Russian revolutions took place in 1917. The first, in February (O.S.; March, N.S.), brought the collapse of the tsarist regime and its replacement by a weak provisional government. A jostling for power began among various parties and groups, including two factions, called Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' party, a Marxist party founded in 1898. The Mensheviks were led by, among others, the party's founder, Georgy Plekhanov. They believed that "feudal" Russia would have to pass through the capitalist phase under a bourgeois democratic regime before it would be ripe for socialism. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, called for the overthrow of the provisional government in favor of immediate rule by workers and peasants.


Lenin was not only a revolutionist but also a prolific writer. He made important additions to the theory of Marxism and created a doctrine for professional revolutionists that gained considerable influence in the economically backward areas of the world. In his pamphlet What Is to Be Done?(1902) he called for an elitist, disciplined party of professional revolutionists to lead the working class toward communism. The principles of "the leading role of the party" and "democratic centralism"—meaning an almost military organizational discipline within the party—were supposed to be practiced by all Communist parties. Lenin further preached flexibility in strategy and tactics. By this he meant a willingness to adapt party programs so as to enlist the support of the peasantry and oppressed national minorities without giving up the goal of communism. Lenin's forceful insistence on his own point of view caused the Russian socialists to divide into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903.

In October (O.S.; November, N.S.) 1917, Lenin led the Bolsheviks in a successful coup d'état against the provisional government of Russia. The initial period of Lenin's Soviet government (1917-21) was characterized by trial and error in the midst of economic dislocation, social chaos, domestic civil war, and foreign intervention. Lenin soon abandoned the notion that the government could function as a "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants." He dissolved the Constituent Assembly that had been elected after the Bolshevik seizure of power, because the Bolsheviks did not control it. Soon all other parties were outlawed. The internal discipline of the ruling Bolshevik, or Communist, party became even stricter.

Lenin also laid the basis for the domination of other Communist parties by the USSR. He insisted that foreign parties break with the existing Second (Socialist) International and form a Third, or Communist, International. The latter came to be known as the Comintern. Every party was required to accept a set of 21 conditions; these were designed to impose Leninist discipline on its members and on the world Communist movement as a whole. As a result, the Comintern, with its headquarters in Moscow and controlling Communist parties in other countries, eventually became little more than an instrument of Soviet foreign policy.

A second phase began in 1921, when Lenin recognized that priority must be given to economic reconstruction. The New Economic Policy (NEP) legalized private trade, encouraged small-scale private enterprise, and loosened the state's grip on agricultural production. This was all in sharp contrast to the radical social and economic experimentation of the preceding period. The NEP, however, was no more than a strategic retreat. The party took the offensive again in 1928. It introduced centralized economic planning through the First Five-Year Plan, which called for forced-draft industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. These programs were implemented at terrible human cost. They were the means by which the Communist party attempted to create the kind of industrial system that already existed in the capitalist countries of the West, but with state ownership of the means of production.


The Soviet leader by this time was Joseph Stalin. Following Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin skillfully used his position as general secretary of the Communist party to obtain a monopoly of power. He overcame the opposition of Leon Trotsky, who had been Lenin's chief lieutenant during the revolution. Lenin and Trotsky had justified their seizure of power as being only the beginning of international revolution that would soon overthrow capitalism in advanced industrial countries such as Germany. They had believed that they would have to wait for the revolution to happen elsewhere before they could successfully build socialism in Russia. Stalin, however, enunciated the doctrine of "socialism in one country." He maintained that the USSR could build socialism by itself. He also believed that unless the USSR became an industrial power it would be destroyed by the stronger capitalist nations of the West.

Stalin ruthlessly carried out the policies of industrialization and collectivization. He did not hesitate to root out and destroy anyone he thought might someday turn against him. Between 1936 and 1940, most of the Old Bolsheviks (the leaders of the 1917 revolution) were executed. At the same time, Stalin systematically eliminated most of the officer corps of the Red Army. The government bureaucracy was purged. Indiscriminate mass terror was unleashed against the population as a whole.

Stalin's political system has been characterized as totalitarianism. Under Stalin the party strove to control every aspect of Soviet life, including the activities of workers, peasants, artists, writers, and athletes. A cult of praise that amounted almost to deification developed around him as supreme leader. His policy decisions, made arbitrarily, were enforced as much by the secret police as by the party. The pervasive controls were relaxed somewhat during World War II, in order to gain popular support for the war effort against the invading Germans. At the end of the war, however, they were quickly reestablished. Stalin believed that the struggle with the capitalist West called for the strictest ideological and political discipline. The Soviet population was once again forced to endure economic privation and political repression so that the Soviet leadership could accomplish the task of reconstructing and expanding the domestic base of heavy industry, which in turn was needed to establish the USSR as a world power.

Stalin died in 1953, and Soviet leadership was eventually taken over by Nikita Khrushchev. At the 20th Congress of the Communist party in 1956, Khrushchev made a "secret speech" in which he denounced Stalin's political methods and disclosed some of the crimes that Stalin had committed to protect his rule. Under Khrushchev the party cautiously loosened its grip on the country without permitting any basic criticism of Communist policies. Many of the labor camps in the Gulag system, to which millions of people had been sentenced under Stalin's regime, were closed. A degree of dissent was tolerated. Khrushchev also sought to raise living standards by diverting resources from industry to agriculture, which had been sacrificed to industrial development during the Stalinist years. In October 1964, Khrushchev was unseated by his associates. He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary and Aleksei Kosygin as premier.

Although it did not return to the terror of Stalin's time, the Brezhnev regime cracked down on domestic dissidence. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union undertook a major arms buildup. It sought to expand its political influence abroad in ways that damaged relations with the United States and threatened East-West détente. At home the Soviet system suffered from widespread bureaucratic stagnation and rampant, although at the time well-concealed, corruption. Brezhnev, who died in 1982, was succeeded by two short-lived successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

The Gorbachev Revolution

In March 1985 a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, took over in the Kremlin. Seeking to revitalize the Soviet system, Gorbachev advocated glasnost, or openness in public affairs. He called for perestroika, a restructuring of economic organization and political life. Among other institutional changes was the creation of the powerful new office of Soviet president, to which Gorbachev himself was duly elected.

The Soviet leader's espousal of "new thinking" in foreign policy, with its promise of more friendly relations with the West, won him much popularity abroad. Within the Soviet Union, however, Gorbachev's reform program encountered political opposition, bureaucratic obstruction, and popular skepticism. At his behest, the Soviet Communist party gave up its Leninist claim to a monopoly of political power. It grudgingly accepted a degree of political pluralism and the prospect of genuine parliamentary democracy. This alienated Communist hard-liners without satisfying radical reformers, many of whom expressed their discontent by resigning from the party. As centrifugal forces increased, a cabal of hard-liners in August 1991 arrested President Gorbachev and mounted an abortive coup. That precipitated the end of Communist rule over the Soviet Union and the end of the Soviet Union itself. By the close of 1991 the USSR had disintegrated into separate republics. Most of these repudiated communism, but some remained authoritarian or reverted to authoritarianism under former Communist party leaders.

Communism in Eastern Europe

When the Soviet armies moved into Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, they installed Communist governments in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Stalin soon moved to reduce these new "people's democracies" to the status of Soviet satellites. The Comintern had been dissolved during the war. Another international organization, the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), was therefore founded in 1947 to coordinate the policies of Communist parties.


Communist regimes were established in Yugoslavia and Albania after the war as well. In these countries, though, the Communists came to power largely through their own efforts, after fighting a successful struggle for national liberation from German occupation. When the Yugoslav leader, Tito, resisted Stalin's efforts to control him, the Yugoslav party was expelled (1948) by the Cominform. Following the break with Tito, Stalin also purged the other East European parties of so-called Titoists, national Communists, and other deviationists. Throughout the area under his power, Stalin imposed the same political and economic regimentation with which he ruled the USSR.

The Crises of 1956

Stalin's imperialistic system received a series of shocks after his death, in March 1953. Those who succeeded him in the Kremlin had to establish their own policies. These included a rapprochement with Tito, a partial easing of the Soviet grip on the East European satellites, and some halfhearted domestic reforms. After Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, a crisis of authority occurred in Eastern Europe. It was most severe in Poland and Hungary. In Poland the Communists were able to survive the crisis after Moscow allowed the return to power of Władysław Gomułka, a former leader who had been ousted as a national Communist in 1948. In Hungary the unrest exploded into open rebellion (October 1956). Because of popular pressure, certain Communist leaders in Hungary permitted the reintroduction of a genuine multiparty system and declared Hungary's neutrality in international politics. The Hungarian Revolution was put down by Soviet troops.

In the aftermath of the 1956 upheaval, Khrushchev worked to reconstitute the Soviet bloc. He sought to preserve Soviet dominance and vigorously combated revisionists who wanted to introduce more freedom into the system. In addition, he sought to foster the development of institutions such as the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) that would tie the Soviet-bloc countries together.

Later Developments

The decay of Soviet authority over other Communist governments could also be seen elsewhere. Yugoslavia had been the first to take a different road after 1948, giving up the attempt to collectivize agriculture and turning over industrial enterprises to workers' councils. Its leaders held to this path after Tito's death, in 1980.

In 1968 economic and political liberalization led by Alexander Dubček threatened to undermine the Communist party's monolithic control of Czechoslovakia and possibly set off repercussions in other East European countries. Moscow denounced the trend as "creeping counterrevolution." In August 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by armies of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. The country was speedily "normalized" and orthodox leadership reinstated.

To justify its intervention in Czechoslovakia, the USSR asserted the right and duty of Communist countries to render "fraternal assistance against counterrevolution." This was known in the West as the Brezhnev Doctrine. In 1979 the doctrine was exercised in Afghanistan, which was occupied by Soviet troops to prop up the pro-Soviet regime there.

In 1980 a wave of strikes in Poland led to the legalization of an independent trade-union movement, Solidarity, and the promise of further liberalization. In December 1981, however, the Polish government, pressured by Moscow, declared a "state of war" against its own society. Solidarity was suppressed. Although martial law was officially lifted in 1983, the Polish Communist regime under Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski ruled with a heavy hand. This did little to ameliorate Poland's deteriorating economic situation and made it difficult to rally popular support.

The Overthrow of the System

In 1989, with the tacit endorsement of the Gorbachev regime in Moscow, new negotiations with Solidarity resulted in to Poland's first partially free elections in 40 years; the polls produced a major defeat for the Polish Communist party. Jaruzelski then called on a Solidarity leader to head a coalition that included both Communists and anti-Communists—a previously unthinkable eventuality. The new Solidarity-led government soon introduced a package of sweeping economic reforms designed to replace Poland's defunct command economy with the free market.

Throughout Eastern Europe, 1989-90 was a time of major upheaval. East Germany, amid widespread popular protests, changed its leadership. In November 1989 it opened its border with West Germany (where many East Germans had recently fled) for the first time in decades. In March 1990 free elections in East Germany produced a non-Communist government. This marked the beginning of the end of a separate East German state, which in a rapid succession of moves merged with West Germany. Demands for reform supported by Moscow toppled the Czechoslovak regime in November 1989; this quickly led to a freely elected non-Communist government there. In 1990, Hungary held free elections, in which the reconstituted, reformist Communist party was voted out of office. In December 1989 the Romanians overthrew the brutally repressive dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu. Romania's new leaders renounced Marxism, but many of them were former Communists who continued to repress dissent. Bulgaria also underwent a change in top leadership. Even Albania—long a bastion of rigid orthodoxy—began to show signs of change. As the authority of the Yugoslav Communist party crumbled, a revival of separatism sparked bloody ethnic strife that continued even after the Yugoslav federation broke apart in 1991. In 1992, Czechoslovakia also split along ethnic lines, into Czech and Slovak republics.

Communism in Chin

In 1949 a Communist movement won power in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). Founded in 1921, the Chinese Communist party allied with the Kuomintang (Nationalists) in 1923, under orders from the Comintern. By Aug. 1, 1927, however, when Communist forces led by Zhu De (Chu Teh) rose up against the Nationalists in the Nanchang (Nan-ch'ang) Uprising, the Nationalists had turned on the Communists. A long civil war began. During this war, the Communists received little aid from Moscow. Forced to retreat into the interior (the Long March of 1934-35), the Chinese Communists built their party on peasant support. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937 and eventually became part of World War II, the party resisted the Japanese more effectively than the Kuomintang. By the end (1945) of the war, it controlled large areas. By 1949 it had defeated the discredited Kuomintang and gained control of the country.


Although the Chinese Communist party gave lip service to the doctrines of Lenin and Stalin, its Marxism was shaped by its own unique experience and blended with the ideas of Mao. Mao saw humans as engaged in a permanent struggle against nature. Society was riven by contradictions between classes (antagonistic contradictions) and between groups (nonantagonistic contradictions). The antagonistic contradictions could be solved by revolution. After the revolution, it was necessary to work out the nonantagonistic contradictions that existed among the people and even within the party. Mao further believed that the revolution did not end when the Communists came to power. It had to be waged continually against vestiges of the old culture and against bureaucratic habits. Under Mao, China was subjected to startling shifts in policy that began with the elite and were carried downward through all parts of society.

Stalin treated the Communist victory in China as a mixed blessing. Though he gave some small-scale Soviet aid to the Chinese, he remained deeply suspicious of any Communist movement not subject to his direct personal control. Under Stalin, Sino-Soviet relations were correct but not close. After his death the two powers came into serious conflict.

The Sino-Soviet Split

Khrushchev initially improved relations with Beijing (Peking) by recognizing China's autonomy in the world Communist movement. The terms of the 1950 Sino-Soviet alliance were revised in China's favor, and substantial economic assistance was offered. But political and ideological differences soon emerged, particularly after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and his espousal of "peaceful coexistence" with the West. The Chinese showed no interest in reducing cold war tensions. In 1960 the USSR discontinued military and technical aid to China. In 1962 it began to supply war materials to India on the eve of the Sino-Indian war. After the USSR signed (1963) a treaty with the United States and Great Britain banning most tests of nuclear weapons, the Chinese accused the USSR of joining with China's enemies. Thereafter, both sides waged a bitter propaganda war.

The Sino-Soviet dispute destroyed the unity of Marxism-Leninism as a world view. It weakened the pretension of the USSR to be the leader of the world Communist movement. When Khrushchev's successors tried to improve relations with Beijing, they were rebuffed by Mao Zedong for practicing "Khrushchevism without Khrushchev." The Chinese, who were struggling to maintain revolutionary militance in a vast peasant country, refused to accept Soviet leadership. They had collectivized agriculture and socialized industry during the 1950s but then had turned away from Soviet-style economic planning. Beijing announced a Great Leap Forward that was to carry China into the Communist era ahead of other countries. The aim was to speed up economic progress by using China's human reserves in place of scarce capital. The acceleration resulted in a seriously disorganized economy and massive famine, and the attempt was abandoned.

A struggle continued in China between those who wanted to follow the Soviet approach to industrialization and those who thought of the Soviets as another bourgeois society and regarded technicians and bureaucrats as enemies of the revolution. Mao himself declared that the Soviet Communists had betrayed the revolution. In 1966 he launched the Cultural Revolution. During this time, millions of young Communists, organized as Red Guards, went through the country denouncing senior officials and establishing revolutionary committees in place of local government bodies. The Cultural Revolution ended in 1969. China's leaders then set about rebuilding new party and state organs. The power struggle finally ended after Mao's death in 1976 with the moderates in control, led by Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p'ing). The country then embarked on a program of technological modernization. China established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979 and subsequently encouraged interaction with Japan and Western nations. It also improved relations with the USSR.

Chinese Contradictions

Deng's initial, ideologically ambiguous call for the "four modernizations" developed into a concerted program for economic reform. This program featured various market incentives and the establishment of special economic zones with considerable latitude for private enterprise. Opponents of the party's dictatorship asked for more, a "fifth modernization"—that is, the renunciation of the party's leading role and the introduction of democracy. This was rejected by most of China's aging Communist elite. Deng and his entourage wanted economic reform without political change. They were determined to crush their critics by force, if necessary. They did so in the June 1989 massacre of students and others in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where up to a million prodemocracy protesters had gathered for weeks on end.

After the death of Deng in early 1997, government policies continued to emphasize gradual economic reforms within a framework of political repression, including a crackdown on the Falun Gong movement after the turn of the century. Conversion of inefficient and unprofitable state enterprises to shareholding arrangements continued. Nevertheless, economic change was inhibited by a leaden bureaucracy, a poorly trained workforce, and pervasive corruption. Economic reforms that were needed to make the country competitive in the world market and gain entry into the World Trade Organization created widespread unemployment. By 2006, when the party celebrated the 85th anniversary of its founding, it had a membership of about 70.8 million. Many of its newer members appeared to have joined the party for economic rather than ideological reasons.

Communism Elsewhere

Communist movements developed in a number of countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. In some cases, notably in Asia and Africa, they have been associated with nationalism and anticolonialism. In Latin America, Communists identified themselves with the struggle against poverty and economic imperialism. In Western Europe they became major parliamentary parties in France and Italy and won control of many municipal governments.

North Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea was established (1948) under Soviet occupation forces after World War II. The state survived the Korean War (1950-53). Its first leader, Kim Il Sung, remained in power until his death in 1994, when he was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il. Before 1991, Kim and his party had to maneuver between the two great Communist superpowers, the Soviet Union and China, and engaged in periodic acts of hostility against the government of South Korea. The regime's general isolation and unpredictability, coupled with its probable nuclear capability, raised international concerns in the mid-1990s. At home, the Korean Communists followed orthodox patterns emphasizing strict political control. Continued priority was given to heavy industry. Kim's ideology of Juche, or self-reliance, was stressed. Severe shortages of food and energy caused extreme hardship to the population in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the regime remained largely indifferent to outside initiatives on aid or cooperation with the international community. Some reaching out began in 2000, with a first meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea. North Korea has since used its nuclear program as a way to obtain outside assistance and occupy a major role on the world stage despite its small size and poverty.

Southeast Asia

Communism in Vietnam became intertwined with the long struggle for national liberation from French colonial rule. The well-organized Communist party became the most effective faction in the liberation movement (Viet Minh) during World War II. By the end of the war it was the strongest political force in Vietnam. The French sought to reestablish their colonial rule after the Japanese withdrew. They were forced to fight a long war that ended in their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; Vietnam was then divided into a Communist state in the north and an anti-Communist state in the south. In 1957 a Communist-led insurrection began in the south, leading to the Vietnam War. The United States became heavily involved in this war. After U.S. withdrawal in 1973, the armies of North Vietnam soon conquered (1975) South Vietnam. A unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established on July 2, 1976.

The Vietnamese Communists followed the Soviet model in their internal policies. This included a single-party regime, state-owned industry, and collectivized agriculture. In foreign affairs they aligned themselves with the USSR and set out to establish hegemony over the other Indochinese countries of Laos and Cambodia. The Laotian Communists (Pathet Lao) had consolidated their power in 1975 after years of military and political struggle. Cambodia had been taken over by a harsh Communist (Khmer Rouge) regime in the same year. The Khmer Rouge depopulated the cities and killed large numbers of Cambodians. In 1977 fighting erupted between Cambodia, which was aided by China, and Vietnam, which was backed by the USSR. This culminated in 1979 in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the installation of a Vietnamese-backed Communist government there. By 1991, Vietnam had withdrawn its forces and Cambodia's competing factions had signed a peace accord. The Vietnamese-backed Communists were defeated in multiparty elections in 1993; the Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections but eventually abandoned their armed struggle against the government.


Communism came to Cuba after a revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in January 1959. While at first he seemed to have only a pragmatic socialist program, Castro gradually moved leftward. He expropriated the property of U.S. business firms and turned to the USSR for economic assistance. The U.S. government tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Castro through the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Subsequently, the USSR placed nuclear missiles in Cuba; the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) seemed to bring the United States and the USSR to the brink of war. In 1965, Castro merged his political movement with the Communist party of Cuba and followed Soviet guidance thereafter.

For a time Castro sought to extend his revolution to other countries of Latin America; the death (1967) of his former associate Che Guevara in Bolivia, where Guevara had gone to organize a guerrilla movement, marked the end of that effort. All of the Western Hemisphere countries except Mexico and Canada broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in the 1960s. In the 1970s, detachments of Cuban troops and military advisors appeared in Africa, where they played a part in the civil war in Angola and assisted Ethiopia against Somalia. In 1979, Cuba hosted a conference of the nonaligned movement. It renewed its efforts to establish the socialist bloc as the "natural ally" of nonaligned countries.

As a result of the Soviet Union's domestic economic problems and its efforts at improved relations with the West, Soviet aid to Cuba fell dramatically from 1989. Such aid ceased completely after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Cuba's dire economic condition likely contributed to the end of its African adventures. The Castro regime has since continued to blame the problems of its perennially ailing economy—characterized by shortages of consumer goods, underemployment, and unemployment—on the decades-long U.S. embargo. In 2006 the ailing Castro designated his brother Raśl as his successor; it is nevertheless unclear whether communism will continue in Cuba after Castro's death.

Western Europe

France and Italy emerged from World War II with large Communist parties. The French party had won popular support because of the part it played in the wartime resistance movement. In the first three decades after the war it regularly received between 20% and 26% of the votes cast in national elections. This gave it a large bloc of seats in the National Assembly. Moreover, it had strong support among industrial workers and some of the peasantry. Until the 1960s the French party supported Moscow's positions faithfully. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, however, it assumed more critical positions. In 1976 it adopted a policy of "socialism in the colors of France," and in 1981, Communists were appointed to the cabinet. Nonetheless, during the 1980s the party suffered a major erosion of electoral strength. Its role in French politics became increasingly marginal.

The Italian Communist party was long known for its critical attitude toward Moscow. Under the leadership (1944-64) of Palmiro Togliatti, it put forward a doctrine of "polycentrism"—meaning that there should be room for a diversity of views among Communist parties. Later, under Enrico Berlinguer (1972-84), it became politically and ideologically moderate; it favored alliances with non-Communist parties. Its political fortunes waned after 1980 as it suffered electoral losses even in its traditional strongholds in Italy's industrial north. The party's peripheral role in Italian politics was underscored in 1991 when it changed its name to the Democratic Socialist party in an effort to gain mainstream acceptance.


During the 1970s, leaders of the Italian, French, and Spanish Communist parties began to act together as a political bloc on the basis of common reformist concepts known as Eurocommunism. This regional unity did not last very long. Eurocommunism lost most of its political appeal and disintegrated along national lines.

Problems and Prospects

Communism today is in retreat almost everywhere. International Communist unity has not existed for decades. The Comintern and the Cominform are now distant memories. With the fall of the Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe from 1989, the end of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact in 1991, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of that year, the world Communist movement largely ceased to exist. Vietnam, China, North Korea, and Cuba insisted that they remained committed to communist principles, but even they recognized the economic hardships such a commitment entailed and made efforts to introduce free-market reforms without sacrificing party control of political life.

Communist ideology offered no ready solutions to the many pressing practical problems that confronted governments of formerly Communist countries. Foremost among these was the challenge of economic reform. The dismantling of command economies in Eastern Europe and Russia caused great disruption and socioeconomic stress. Poland, Hungary, and to a lesser extent the Czech Republic have undergone upheaval trying to create the financial, political, and economic institutions needed to become successful market economies. The cost of reconstructing the former East Germany has imposed a staggering burden on the reunified nation. In Russia itself, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the late President Boris Yeltsin came under constant attack for his economic reform program. Right-wing nationalism appeared to gather strength. Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, was more authoritarian; he sought to restore the international influence Russia had enjoyed during the Communist era.
—Melvin Croan

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