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What is Communism?

Author:  Richard Pipes, Harvard University. American historian who specializes in Russian history, particularly with respect to the history of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War era he headed Team B, a team of analysts which analyzed the strategic capacities and goals of the Soviet military and political leadership.

The term "communism" originated in France in the 1840's but it acquired a modern meaning only in 1918 when V.I. Lenin, having seized power in what used to be the Russian empire, named his party Communist.

Communism is a variant of socialism. It differs from it in this important respect that while the socialists believe in democracy and assume that they will come to power democratically and rule democratically.

Lenin and his Communist followers did not. On one occasion, Lenin frankly defined his government as "power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion" -- an excellent definition of what later came to be labeled a "totalitarian regime."

The Communists, like the socialists and anarchists, assert that their dictatorship is only a temporary regime, established to destroy the propertied classes and the entire socio-political order founded by them. Once the bourgeoisie has been crushed, the state will "wither away" and yield to a free association of communities.

But this objective has in fact not been achieved by any Communist regime. For one, even after the old propertied classes have been dispossessed, new ones emerge or are ready to emerge to take their place. Secondly, in order to maintain the "proletarian dictatorship" it is necessary to create a privileged caste, called in Russia nomenklatura, that arrogates itself the rights and privileges of the old bourgeoisie.

As a result, the Communist state everywhere atrophies: it stays in place, unable to change yet unwilling to yield. Examples of such atrophied Communist regimes today are Cuba and North Korea. The Soviet Union, the oldest and largest of these regimes, collapsed only because the ruling elite started making changes that brought the whole edifice down.

Experience indicates that a Communist regime can dissolve only if its rulers are no longer willing to maintain it. It cannot be dissolved from below.