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To my knowledge, communism is a classless society in which everyone contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.

When people bring up the Soviet Union or China as examples where communism has failed, my first thought is that neither the Soviet Union nor China really fits that description.

First of all, neither the Soviet Union nor China were/are a classless society, since there was a ruling class (dictatorship) that oppressed the working class.

Calling these countries socialist also doesn't work, since in a socialist society the means of production are shared collectively (at least to my knowledge), and in most countries that are called socialist

Am I missing something? Are my definitions wrong?

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    This is a frequent claim made by proponents of Communism. The validity, or not, of this claim, as well as whether enough people believe it, has far-reaching political consequences in the real world, for real people. The most upvoted answer to date disputes this claim. While that is certainly an opinion, the presence, or absence, of a solid answer supporting the claim that Soviet Union and China are incorrect and atypical Communist implementations would also be a data point to judge how solid this claim is. Vote to reopen. Apr 11, 2023 at 16:29
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    Although it seems to have bothered none of the 40 upvoters, the 2nd-to-last statement that talks about the USSR & China not being even socialist is missing a verb to make it a full sentence. And in fact it's missing much of an argument/proof why public/state ownership isn't "collective". I'm guessing though that was intended to be another hair-splitting around the meaning of "collective" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_ownership Apr 11, 2023 at 20:30
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    I think this is getting opinion answers since the Q doesn't say "in whose opinion". For example, my answer is about why 1920's Marxists didn't think it was real Communism. Someone else might know if current Marxists believe that and why. I'm emphasizing Marx since OP is using a Marxist definition. Another answer could be "according to modern historians", but I don't think they cared if it was "real". Apr 12, 2023 at 0:19
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    This question is being discussed on meta politics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6532/… Apr 12, 2023 at 11:06
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    @OwenReynolds Yes, that is certainly a good point. But in general, when we hear this claim made the general context seems to be "but if we were to give Communism a real chance it would work". In that sense, of course if you ask many Marxists it would not be the real thing. Someone previously commented it was the No True Scotsman fallacy. Thing is, national Marxism has been tried about 20 times so its practice rather than opinion and theory are pretty clear. Claiming that multiple tries from the same theory all goofed the theory? Nice! Apr 12, 2023 at 18:50

10 Answers 10

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Its mostly a matter of definition.

Communism was supposed to bring about a better, more rational world in both Russia and China. Marx theorised that once the dead hand of capitalist exploitation was lifted there would be enough resources for everyone, and because they were no longer being exploited the workers would cheerfully work together for everyone's benefit. As a result the coercive arms of the state would no longer be needed and would wither away; why bother being a policeman when there is no economic driver for crime?

Unfortunately it didn't work out like that. In reality people needed to be organised to work and he who says "organisation" says "oligarchy". Thus Lenin's USSR saw the appearance of the new class of apparatchiks. They did the organising, but with a number of problems:

  • Organising a giant industrial economy by central planning is inherently hard. Doing it with clerks and paperwork is simply impossible; there are literally too many variables. Modern computers might be able to tackle the problem, but even the mainframes of the 1970s were nowhere near up to it.

  • The apparatchiks rapidly formed themselves into an oligarchy which naturally routed as much of the economic output as possible to themselves. (c/f the princelings of China).

  • The senior apparatchiks were concerned to maintain their individual power and priviledges, and so tended to object to anything that might threaten them. Since power was measured in underlings and almost any change was going to threaten someone, this was a recipe for stagnation and bloated bureaucracy. People trying to introduce computers into the Soviet planning system ("why would a worker need a computer?") found that at every stage someone senior felt threatened by their ideas and worked to block or undermine them.

  • Another part of Marxist theory holds that capitalism alienates the worker from the product of their labour. However in practice if you are working on a production line it doesn't make much difference who the boss is, they are still the boss and they still tell you what to do and how fast to do it. Its the production line system that is alienating, not capitalism. And you can't run a modern economy on artisanal craft production.

  • Marx theorised that once the workers had the true situation explained to them they would naturally understand that the Party had their best interests at heart, and dissent would therefore not be a problem. In practice of course it was a problem. Modern socialists are keen to blame foreign agitation for this, and its certainly true that the West saw the USSR as a threat and worked to encourage dissent. But to the extent they were effective, it was only because there was genuine resentment of the way the party kept mismanaging things, ordering people around, and swiping the best stuff. The Soviet government responded by creating a secret political police to enforce conformity. So the coercive wings of the state grew rather than shrank.

So then you ask "was the result of all this really communism?" It certainly wasn't what Marx had in mind, but it does seem to be the trajectory that inevitably gets followed when someone in power tries to follow Marx. You wind up with a one-party dictatorship which runs the economy badly while relying on secret police to suppress the inevitable dissent from alienated workers.

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    Computers would not help with central planning. Imagine knowing that the population wants to buy 500 million shoes as well as 5 million cars next year, but you only having resources for either that many shoes or that many cars. Market economy nails it, but not planned one.
    – alamar
    Apr 8, 2023 at 15:48
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    @alamar See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_programming It's an optimisation problem that any society has. Capitalism can be considered as a distributed method for solving it. Central computers are another. Apr 8, 2023 at 16:43
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    One thing to note however is that Marx wrote in the 1860s and 1870s, a time of robber baron industrialists and pervasive child labor in the West. Since then Western Capitalism has evolved, to considerably strengthened labor laws and protections as well as mechanisms to assist public welfare. In no small part as a self-interested response to lessen the appeal of Communism. So Communist true believers still fixate against a long dead straw man/moved goalposts. While staggeringly unwilling to engage in reevaluation of their system and find ways to adjust it. Still dogmatically quoting Marx. Apr 8, 2023 at 17:15
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    A small note, various regimes of the communist flavor did self-describe as socialist on the way towards communism rather than fully developed communism. Still with all the problems you outline.
    – o.m.
    Apr 8, 2023 at 19:09
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The social order in the USSR wasn't even claimed to be "Communism." The social order in the Union of the Soviet (translation: committee or committee-based) Socialist Republics was self-ascribed as "socialism."

"Communism" was the perpetual goal, in the making, in the USSR. It was the Marx-promised salvation on Earth, which was to be built as the end-state of the human achievement. A cynical view would be to compare it to the Rapture or the "Singularity."

The "Communist" countries are called that primarily because they are ruled by the Communist Party, an entity which proclaims itself to be international. So the Communist Party in the USSR and the Communist China (PRC) was supposed to be one, and the same, political entity (even though the 2 countries had a brief military conflict).

Calling the social order in the Communist countries "Communism," or even less clearly, "communism" is largely a convenience to describe the fact that they are ruled by the Communist parties.

As a side note, lower-case "communism" is just a prevalent grammatical fiction. Lower-case "communism" is pronounced as commUnism, rather than cOmmunism, and it means a community-centered society.

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    "As a side note," - good luck with your linguistic prescriptivism there. I think you'll find barely anyone willing to go along with that proposal. Apr 8, 2023 at 22:08
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    Google Ngrams strongly disagrees with you. It has, demonstrably, always been contentious whether or not to capitalize the term, with a notable preference for lowercase. Results for one are not subsumed within the other, because the lines cross over each other; and the results are biased in favour of uppercase - since the word will sometimes appear at the beginning of a sentence - and thus the preference for the lowercase version is stronger than the graph suggests. Apr 8, 2023 at 22:28
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    Aside from that, the pronunciation you propose is one I have literally never heard spoken aloud in my 40+ years of existence, and your definition also seems quite novel. I cannot make any sense out of the distinction you are trying to propose, and it seems like if it did make sense then it would make nonsense out of the "grammatical fiction" claim. Furthermore, you have provided no citations to justify your interpretation. Apr 8, 2023 at 22:32
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    The only idea I attributed to you is the supposition that the casing of the word changes the meaning. The reason I am attributing it to you is because you have not shown anyone else who makes the claim. To say "it must be capitalized because it is a proper name" is a textbook example of linguistic prescriptivism. Please make sure you are familiar with the concept. Apr 8, 2023 at 22:58
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    @wrod Are you thinking of "communalism"?
    – wizzwizz4
    Apr 9, 2023 at 15:12
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Communism, as described by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in their various scholarly writings, shares multiple principles with multiple different ideologies including socialism, bolshevism, Nazism, Leninism, and multiple other ideas that led to massive genocide.

The main theme of these ideologies is the eradication of capitalism in favor of the labor theory of ownership. The labor theory of ownership demands the relinquishment of private ownership while selling your labor to the state in return for your basic needs such as housing, healthcare, education, and food.

Capitalism, or capital, as described by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, is a social construct brought on by the Industrial Revolution and is simply defined as value.

They went as far as describing the family as a product of capitalism

"family" (familia ) is not that compound of sentimentality and domestic strife which forms the ideal of the present-day philistine; among the Romans it did not at first even refer to the married pair and their children, but only to the slaves. Famulus means domestic slave, and familia is the total number of slaves belonging to one man. As late as the time of Gaius, the familia, id est patrimonium (family, that is, the patrimony, the inheritance) was bequeathed by will. The term was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them all.

This term, therefore, and the idea it represents, are no older than the iron-clad family system of the Latin tribes, which came in after field agriculture and after legalized servitude, as well as after the separation of the Greeks and Latins.

The modern family contains in germ not only slavery (servitus ) but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state.

Such a form of family shows the transition of the pairing family to monogamy. In order to guarantee the wife's fidelity and therefore the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.

With the patriarchal family, we enter the field of written history, a field where comparative jurisprudence can give considerable help. And it has in fact brought an important advance in our knowledge. We owe to Maxim Kovalevsky (Outline of the Origin and Evolution of the Family and Property, Stockholm, 1890, pp. 60-100) the proof that the patriarchal

See The origins of the family, private property, and the state. Also, see Capital A critique of political economy

And therein lies the reason why no country has ever achieved the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Socialism and communism have never and will never work because placing value on labor and goods is human nature. Even the ancient Mayans placed value on goods.

To implement a true communist Society would require a complete eradication of money and value. Any society, government, or government program which operates using a monetary system of capital is the complete opposite of communism.

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    Never heard Hitler promising exactly Communism, really so?
    – Stančikas
    Apr 8, 2023 at 18:47
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    No, not that I am aware of. He related his ideas to a mixture of Bolshevik socialist ideas and the Bourgeois. Either way, Hitler believed that the Jews were the rich capitalists and a foe of the Aryan race.
    – Kevin A
    Apr 8, 2023 at 21:25
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    @BaardKopperud Exactly. His theories about Jews related to what he believed was a threat to Germany's national identity. He blamed the Jews for perverting the socialist idea into Marxism, which he said was contradictory to the socialist idea. Coincidentally, Marx said something similar about the Democratic Socialists, labeling them as the petty-Bourgeois and warning about their willingness to sympathize with capitalists.
    – Kevin A
    Apr 9, 2023 at 6:34
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    @Stančikas Communism shared principals with National Socialism. That in no way means that it equated with Communism.
    – RonJohn
    Apr 10, 2023 at 0:28
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    @BaardKopperud The "social idea" as Hitler described it in his speech of 1921, was developed during the 17th century, shortly after the industrial revolution. Therefore, both Marx and Hitler perverted the socialist idea.
    – Kevin A
    Apr 16, 2023 at 0:12
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It's true, so-called "Communist countries" all remained stuck at "Socialism" - ie. The State owns the means of production.

Marx believed Capitalism (the means of production is in private ownership) would be replaced by Socialism (mop owned by the State), which in turn would be replaced by Communism. The revolutions were to "hurry along" the fall of Capitalism.

In Communism (actual Communism) the people would form "Communes" - for example all the people in a village or small town, or all the people in a part of a city. They would own the factories and farms (means of production) in the area, would themselves together decide what to produce (based on what they needed or could exchange with other communes), and would work in the factories or farms. No central Government, no being dictated to from above, just small groups people deciding for themselves and working for their own direct benefit!

It's doubtful it would've worked, but it has never been tried. Why not? Perhaps when the revolutionary saw how much power running a Socialist state gave them, they didn't want to give up that power? Perhaps Stalin felt the Russian people had suffered enough with several wars &c, and wouldn't force them to (once again) totally change their political system?

Edit: Also, there were good reasons to replace a barter-based economy for one based on money, why to have a central Government, and why to embrace Capitalism in the first place. No doubt some of these reasons would pop up if one tried to implement real Communism.

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    Communes have been tried at various times in the past (including by the American colonists). They almost all suffered from the same issue: lazy people would do less work than they were capable of, and take more than they contributed. Hard workers would work harder than the benefits they received. Hardworker's excess would not merely go towards people infirm or disabled or youthful, which is tolerable and fine, but would go to physically-able people who were content to be freeloaders as much as permitted.
    – Jamin Grey
    Apr 9, 2023 at 3:33
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    Inevitably, the hard-workers eventually say to themselves, "I'll take care of me and mine, and help those who need help, but I will not sweat for the "community" if the community won't equally sweat for me." And the skilled workers and hard-workers would either leave the community, or stop working as hard, and the community would collapse.
    – Jamin Grey
    Apr 9, 2023 at 3:35
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    @JaminGrey This is textbook game theory.
    – v.oddou
    Apr 9, 2023 at 15:57
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    @BaardKopperud That was just one example. Communism has been tried many, many times, including in the present and recent past in various places around the world, including in the West. It's just that none of them ever became particularly productive mostly for the reasons mentioned by Jamin and they usually either ended up maintaining a subsistence-type standard of living or dissolving entirely. There were lots of them in the hippy-era U.S., for example. Kibbutzim were also common among Eastern-European immigrants to Israel, though they have become less communist over time.
    – reirab
    Apr 10, 2023 at 7:47
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    //It's doubtful it would've worked, but it has never been tried. Why not?// Plymouth Plantation was originally operated under a communist ideology, until it was recognized that people would be much more industrious when working their own fields for their own benefit, than working communal fields for communal benefit. If communism could have worked anywhere, it should have worked there.
    – supercat
    Apr 10, 2023 at 16:41
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To provide an orthogonal answer as the one already present, I wish to suggest a thought exercise to demonstrate that actually communist societies do exist and function well:

The army.

Armies in all countries function the same as far as I'm aware, they are financed by the state, owned by the state, hierarchical, and has barely any notion of private property.

Lodgeing is provided, food is provided, clothing is provided, tooling is provided, medecine and health is provided. In case of tool or weapon breakage, the army (the community) takes care of it. You just have to go to a supervisor and say "my googles are broken" and you get new ones. No need to pay.

This system, to my understanding, is precisely communism. It's what it is supposed to be, and effectively this manifestly works.

Note that small private property is allowed, like books or charms, private correspondance etc. In my understanding, communism also works this way, private property isn't eradicated, it's only shared where share is due (regalian tasks or communal welfare).

Now there could be two discussions point,

Production of goods and services

The army does a limited amount of internal production, such as military grade anything, processors, high temperature, high vibration resistant electronics, a high quantity of maintenance of machines, ships, tanks, planes etc. But I'm not aware that the companies making the devices in the first place are 100% military owned. Since the industrial revolution, I'm suspecting the method of furnishing goes more this way: a colonel rides to a factory, and negociate an order for "a thousand motorcycle". There can be entertwinning in terms of legal and secrecy handling with army treaties, but the company remains private. The state can acquire shares and place them under exchange limitations (against takeovers). But there still are civil workers in the fabs.

For that reason, the army organisation isn't demonstrating a 100% communism society, just a sub part of it.

Second argument for discussion would be the hierarchy.

I'm not aware that communism mandates this verticality. For example, the opposite form of governance, anarchy, is also a leftist policy. Being from the same ideological border, I'm enclined to believe the utopias desired by both should resemble so much that communists would probably agree that anarchy is in fact the goal. The concept of central planning is just a particular instance implemented by the soviets to attempt management. Management can be distributed, bitcoin demonstrated a strong proof of that by solving the byzantines generals problem for instance. Well thought anarchy is also in the same lines of design than BTC proof of work method. It attempts at finding rules that distributed agents apply, to get an orderly emergent behavior.
In the army, the inherent slowness of such consensus systems is impracticable, but for society it may.

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    Armed forces are not a closed system. They rely on the larger population to produce enough surplus resources so that they can operate. Apr 11, 2023 at 3:21
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    This is nonsense. The main component of communism is the eradication of capitalism. Service members are paid and receive pensions in capital. All of their equipment, materials, technology, and intel is designed, developed, manufactured, shipped, bought, and sold with capital. How then is the Army, or any government program for that matter, a communist system?
    – Kevin A
    May 5, 2023 at 20:57
  • This confuses communism with a command economy. Jan 25 at 10:43
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Communism is just a think-tank concept that is not ideal in real world implementation, or at least require a very strict definition-to-a-T adherence from the people and rulers in order to achieve it. Plus, human nature implies greed often supersedes ideals or rules, so people left to govern themselves will most likely spiral into chaos.

The notion of workers owning the means of production is vague on purpose. Owning the means of production means supervision of the means of production, organization and thus eventually oligarchy. Unless humans resist joining up for their own good, this will no doubt spiral back into the ills of capitalism.

And neither of those scenarios happened to China and Russia because those countries were actually little ancient imperialists that heralded capitalism under the guise of socialism. They had ruling classes which dictated private businesses. That is very far from socialism, much less communism. They can at best be labelled as social capitalists, or at worst called failed socialist republics.

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  • About means of production and ownership, there are modern very real experiments being done under the umbrella of participatory economics, parecon for short. Parecon people do projects in south america and publish results, we can even name them researchers in social science. There are very interesting results mentioned by the likes of Michael Albert.
    – v.oddou
    Apr 10, 2023 at 7:17
  • Is what you say also true about capitalism? Apr 11, 2023 at 2:54
  • There were no private businesses in the USSR - except for possibly selling some of the produce from one's own garden. The private business was first allowed in 1988, see Law on Cooperatives. Apr 12, 2023 at 7:37
  • @user253751 Marx draws clear distinctions between the political systems termed capitalism, communism and some other ones, and clear criteria for distinguishing them. An important one is the abolishing of private property under the communism - as was the case in the USSR, and as was the case in China before the economic reforms. Discussing communism without reference to Marx is somewhat meaningless. Apr 12, 2023 at 7:44
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First of all, neither the Soviet Union nor China were/are a classless society, since there was a ruling class (dictatorship) that oppressed the working class.

A common mistake is confusing dictatorship and totalitarianism. Dictatorship is a rule by one or few people, who control the mechanisms of power (e.g., via army, police, repression of anyone who could challenge their rule.) These do not constitute in class in Marxist sense. More importantly, dictatorships are usually unconcerned with how their subject live their private lives, what they say or which freedoms they exercise - as long as these activities do not threaten the power of the governing clique. One

Totalitarian society aims at remodeling everyday life according to certain model, aiming at all its aspects - what people eat, how they dress, what they discuss and think, how they celebrate important occasions, how they organize their economic relations, how/whom they pray. The well-known examples of totalitarian societies are the Communist, National-Socialist/Fascist, and Islamist regimes (as practiced, e.g., in Iran or Saudi Arabia). The nature of the totalitarian society was aptly captured by Orwell in 1984 and the Animal farm (both echoing the early years of the USSR) and more recently in The Handmaid's Tale.

The difference between Communists, National-Socialists/Fascists, and Islamists is the justification used for abolishing the individual freedoms - in the name of Class, in the name of Nation, or in the name of Religion. Abolition of individual freedoms in the name of class is the cornerstone of the ideology developed by Marx and collaborators, and various Communist and Marxist regimes were faithful to it. Marx also didn't hide that these goals were to be achieved via violence and suppression, as captured by the term dictatorship of the proletariat^1 - dictatorship by a class, rather than a group.

One could point at various points of divergence in details between Marxism as envisaged by Marx and its practical realizations. Unlike Hitler, Marx was not a practical man and never intended to implement his policies himself, so he didn't bother himself with the the logical consequences of his philosophy. In addition, most Communists regimes emerged well after the Marx' death, and had to deal with the realities that he couldn't even imagine. One could equally point out the differences in implementation of Marxist prescriptions in different countries, as exemplified by outright hostility and wars, like Sino-Soviet split. Yet, the essence remains the same - like Christianity does not become Islam just because there are divergences between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, and all three are different from how it was preached some 2000 years ago.

E.g., Marx didn't foresee emergence of a class of party functionaries, who would abuse their power rather than use it for the good of the population. Emergence of such a class is however an inevitable consequence of trying to implement his prescriptions on a scale of a country: The need for managing and distributing resources for millions of people, as well as managing their everyday lives, requires a bureaucracy of millions of functionaries - the notorious big government (as much as the term might be abused by the western right-wing, it was a reality in the communist and fascist states.)

Calling these countries socialist also doesn't work, since in a socialist society the means of production are shared collectively (at least to my knowledge), and in most countries that are called socialist

In the USSR the means of production were owned collectively - which in practice meant the ownership by the government, and supervised by the party functionaries, who consequently could use it for their benefit or for how they imagined the benefit of the population.

The confusion here is between the use of term socialism in colloquial discourse (in the meaning of social) and its formal meaning in political economy, notably as defined by Marx (a transition state between Capitalism and Communism.) Importantly, all the Soviet-aligned states formally declared themselves Socialist, whereas none of the modern western socialist states is formally defines itself as such.

For example, the Soviet constitution declared:

Article 1. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a socialist state of the whole people, expressing the will and interests of the workers, peasants, and intelligentsia, the working people of all the nations and nationalities of the country.

Article 2. All power in the USSR belongs to the people. [...]

Article 3. The Soviet state is organised and functions on the principle of democratic centralism [...] (emphasis mine.)

On the other hand, here is as the V-th French Repiblic is defined by its constitution

La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. Elle assure l'égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d'origine, de race ou de religion. Elle respecte toutes les croyances. Son organisation est décentralisée.

(France is a indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It assures the equality before the law of all the citizens without distinction of origin, race, or religion. It respects all beliefs. Its organization is decentralized.)

I recommend reading the Soviet Constitution and some Marx for more enlightened view (at least the Communist Manifesto, which can be found in many languages and is relatively short.) While the modern Western economic and political systems can be criticized on many counts, there are more intelligent and less extreme solutions than Communism. The use of this term is usually a matter of an outright provocation or deep ignorance, comparable to flat-earthing, global warming denial, anti-vaccine movements, creationism, etc.


^1 Dictatorship of the proletariat is a Marxist term, despite some claims of its latter origin:

The socialist revolutionary Joseph Weydemeyer coined the term dictatorship of the proletariat, which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels adopted to their philosophy and economics.

Furthermore:

In Marxist philosophy, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a condition in which the proletariat holds state power. [...] During this phase, the administrative organizational structure of the party is to be largely determined by the need for it to govern firmly and wield state power to prevent counterrevolution and to facilitate the transition to a lasting communist society.

(emphasis mine)
That is already the recipe for political repression, implemented by so many Marxist followers.

It is also interesting to see the list of euphemisms used to describe the dictatorship of the proletariat:

Other terms commonly used to describe the dictatorship of the proletariat include socialist state, proletarian state, democratic proletarian state, revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic dictatorship of the proletariat.

Terms socialist state and democratic dictatorship are particularly echoed in the modern political discourse.


The Ten Points Of Marxism
Below is the 10 point program outlines by Marx and Engles in The Communist Manifesto:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

  8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of c hildren’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

All points of these program were diligently implemented by major communist states, notably the USSR. The only caveat is that some of these points, like 2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. and 3. Abolition of all right of inheritance., were made obsolete in the conditions of the complete nationalization of means of production, housing and nearly everything going beyond personal items - there was simply nothing to tax and nothing to inherit.


A relevant quote from the Historical dictionary of Marxism:

While the practice of these and other countries claiming to be Marxist would seem to be at odds with much of what Marx wrote, for example about freedom and the future stateless, classless communist society,it would be facile to dismiss any link between Marxism in theory and communist practice. For example, there is a case to be made for suggesting that Marx and subsequent Marxists neglected the individual, individual rights, constitutional checks and balances to power, and democratic institutions and procedures. This stemmed, perhaps, partly through too optimistic a view of human nature and a failure to observe Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The omission in the theory suggests a reason for the totalitarian tendencies displayed in communist practice.


Another quote, this time from Isaiah Berlin's biography of Karl Marx:

This doctrine (the clearest formulation of which is to be found in the Address of the Central Authority to the League, written by Marx and Engels in 1850) is familiar to the world because (revived by the Russian agitator Parvus) it was urged by Trotsky in 1905, adopted by Lenin, and put into practice by them with the most literal fidelity in Russia in 1917.

The quote refers to the concept of permanent revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx himself tried unsuccessfully implement during the Revolutions of 1848 (mainly through advocating such action via newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung, of which he was the editor.


Was there communism without the USSR?
Another way to look at the question is by examining of what the "real Communism" without the USSR looked like... more precisely - was there ever a Communist/Marxist movement without the USSR?

Communism before the Socialist Revolution in Russia
Surely, Marx and Engels wrote there foundation texts before the USSR came into being, and they have made two abortive attempts to establish it as a real political movement - via the International Workingmen's Association (First International) and the Second International. There had also been the German Socialist Party (SPD) which professed Marxist values, but which was plugged from the very beginning by fighting between the "revisionists", i.e., the adherents of the Parliamentary political engagement, and the Spartakists - the proponents of violent Marxist revolution, who would later split off to form the Communist Party of Germany.

Communism after the Socialist Revolution of 1917
After the Revolution the Communist parties suddenly emerged in great numbers in many countries, as can be seen from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_communist_parties. The rare cases where the party foundation date predates the revolution, like the Chilean Communist Party, turn out to be the cases of the existing parties suddenly changing their name and aligning to the Moscow orthodoxy. The above mentioned Communist Party of Germany also emerged after 1917, as a movement opposing "bourgeois" Weimar Republic.

A characteristic example is the French Communist Party - indeed, by then France had then a more than a century old socialist tradition, represented by such names as Saint-Simon, Joseph Fourier, Proudhon, Louis-Blanc and Blanqui - all of which influenced Marx. French Revolution, French class struggles, and ultimately French Commune were par excellence the standard cases in Marxist theory, as exemplified by Marx' classical works like Misère de la philosophie, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850. Yet, France didn't have its own Communist Party until this would be parachuted by Comintern.

Of course, some later communist movements would adopt clearly anti-Soviet Positions, notably China during the Sino-Soviet split. But logically, it is the rejection of the Soviet line which should be considered as not real communism, and not the other way around.

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  • You seem to confuse Marx with Lenin. Like with regards to the dictatorship of the proletariat you might read Engels introduction to the civil war in France marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/… specifically page 41-43 where he argues against dictatorial centralization, against the state, against bureaucracy, for direct universal suffrage and RECALL of officials if they don't comply with their constituents, for dismantling the repressive machinery rather than employing it for one's own use and so on.
    – haxor789
    Apr 13, 2023 at 3:25
  • The intro is okaish, most of what you say or conjecture about Marx doesn't seem to be based in reality, the 10 point plan was described as obsolete during Marx's lifetime (his words). Though you seem to have a point that "communism" as a term is heavily tainted by the USSR or more particular the "Marxism-Leninism"/Stalinism ideology that they exported all over the place and by them leading the biggest movement of that name. Your article also mentions some left communism though and the initial KPD/Spartakists were not aligned, though they were murdered and their successors were
    – haxor789
    Jul 3, 2023 at 12:19
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At the time Russia wasn't considered to be proper Marxist Communism because that has to come after Capitalism -- big factories, industrialization and so forth -- and Russia wasn't a capitalist country in the 1920's. A quote from Wikipedia's Maxist-Leninist page:

A key aspect that affected the Bolshevik regime was the backward economic conditions in Russia that were considered unfavourable to orthodox Marxist theory of communist revolution. At the time, orthodox Marxists claimed that Russia was ripe for the development of capitalism, not yet for socialism.

The idea (in my words) is that you can't have "Workers of the World Unite!" (written by Marx and Engels) until you have workers, workers who understand the dirty side of 1800's capitalism in detail and fight to improve things. Think the movie "Norma Rae" (about unionizing a factory) where the workers hated management and vaguely knew they had some rights. Whereas in Russia being told "We're in charge now, here are your improved conditions, do this 5-year plan" is at best a benevolent dictatorship.

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    It is not true, Russia had plenty of big factories and industrialization, especially in St. Petersburg, Ural region, Baltics and Donbass. The fact that it was less industrialized on average than e.g. Belgium did not preclude large areas of pretty dense industry.
    – alamar
    Apr 10, 2023 at 22:37
  • What you're describing is far more true for China than for Russia. China tried to jump directly from Marx's "feudal" stage to his "communist" stage, and seems to have landed squarely in the "capitalist" stage, just like Marx predicted.
    – Mark
    Apr 11, 2023 at 1:56
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    This is another of the "quibbling on details" answers. You make a particular claim : "no factories" and use that to say, "See! It wasn't Communism". What makes this particularly unconvincing is that Communist scholars and experts had no problem declaring its applicability in countries with very low industrialization like Cambodia or Peru. Apr 11, 2023 at 18:13
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    @alamar Hmmm...the quote is the important part, where people at the time felt Russia wasn't capitalist yet. I can revise my intro to that. Thanks. Apr 12, 2023 at 0:02
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I know you're trying to help, and Wikipedia has a lot of junk, but its Marxist-Leninist page jives with what I know. Lenin felt a need to distinguish his communism from Marx's, and Marxists really felt it wasn't real communism. If you think it's quibbling, I guess that proves you're not a Marxist. Apr 12, 2023 at 0:06
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The other answers are straying far away from the question, which is simply: "Were supposed communist states actually communist?"

This is a definition of "communism" from Oxford:

a theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.

and "socialism":

a set of political and economic theories based on the belief that everyone has an equal right to a share of a country’s wealth and that the government should own and control the main industries

  • Was all property owned by the community? Depends on how you define "ownership", but generally no. For example, Wikipedia states that administrators set production quotas for farms. Workers would only be allowed to eat once the quota was met. In 1932, Stalin set production quotas so high that workers starved because they could not possibly produce the amount demanded by the quota.

    That doesn't sound like community ownership to me. That sounds like a capitalist boss who sets your pay and doesn't pay you if you don't produce enough. Except everyone has the same boss, which makes it a dictatorship.

  • Did each person receive according to their needs? Well, no, see above.

  • Did each person contribute according to their ability? That's hard to say in general, but in this instance they were clearly demanded to contribute above their ability, which they couldn't.

  • Did they receive according to their work input (a commonly cited variation of the principle)? Also clearly no: the Ukrainian farmers worked quite hard to meet the unrealistic quotas, and yet, they received no food.

  • Did the government control the main industries? Yes, but...

  • Did everyone have equal right to the country's wealth? Again, clearly not.

Conclusion: No, the USSR was not communist nor socialist.

Be wary of taking self-declarations at face value. North Korea calls itself a democratic republic, even though in reality it's a totalitarian dictatorship.

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  • FYI: "Claiming themselves to be at a "lower stage of communism" (i.e. "socialism", in line with Vladimir Lenin’s terminology), the Soviet Union adapted the formula as: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work (labour investment)". This was incorporated in Article 12 of the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union [...]" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Apr 11, 2023 at 4:59
  • @Fizz that doesn't fit either, because I'm sure those Ukrainian farmers worked quite hard to meet their unrealistically high quotas and in return they were not allowed to eat. Apr 11, 2023 at 17:47
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    Fair enough. Although I didn't DV your answer, I still find it a case of cherry picking or "no true Scotsman". Like arguing that if one country ever had an election marred by unfairness or even vote stuffing, then it's never a democracy. The kind of argument that the Putin propaganda puts out a lot these days, BTW. Apr 11, 2023 at 19:34
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    @Fizz it would have to be shown that this was some kind of rare exception to the normal operation of the country; I've seen no evidence that this was so. That the leaders saw the starving farmers were eating the stalks of harvested crops and without hesitation they reacted by banning this practice, instead of finding some real food for them to eat, tells me this kind of thing was pretty normal for them. Apr 11, 2023 at 19:40
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That's definitely true. None of the Communist countries were actually Communist, furthermore, arguably none of these were even socialist. As I think myself though, Soviet Union under Stalin's rule was heading the right way towards socialism (which, as stated by Marx, is the first step towards communism), but it was too much to handle. The revolution came too early, so there weren't any real convenient capabilities to properly manage the economic system. It was not the right time in general for socialism, but for many countries which went socialist it still was a huge boost for their development. Take Soviet's industry development throughout its existence and compare it to Russian Empire or even modern Russia. Or take how China stood up and united itself under Mao Zedong's rule. And despite of them going to market socialism (which nowadays has just a few differences from capitalism (in general))

This also depends on how you define "socialism". Referring to the Marxism-Leninism theory, socialism is defined as a worldwide political and economic system based on the dictatorship of the proletariat (as opposed to the capitalist dictatorship of the bourgeois, where "dictatorship" does not necessarily mean the government's policy, but the fact of class superiority). Natural resources and means of production are split collectively under socialism. Using this definition, we cannot call any Communist-aligned country a socialist one. Stalin's system was based on developing "socialism in one country", which is not the right definition of socialism, but it can however be called a "local dictatorship of proletariat" policy. Unfortunately, after Stalin's death, new general secretaries like Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev transformed the policy into a nomenklatura dictatorship which played it's role for the collapse.

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    "The revolution came too early,... " Negley Farson was in Moscow in 1917 the day the revolution started (selling arms to the Russian military). His wasn't surprised: the corruption, poverty, and the incompetent bureaucracy made it inevitable; he was puzzled that it had taken so long for it to happen. I met some Russians during the 1990s, and their description of life in Moscow pretty well matched Farson's description just before the revolution. Apr 11, 2023 at 3:39
  • @SimonCrase Which of the 2 revolutions of 1917?
    – haxor789
    Apr 18, 2023 at 12:35
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    The revolution. Farson was in Petrograd when the revolution against the Tsar broke out. He attended at least one of Kerensky's speeches; as I recall he admired K's attempts to hold on as the Bolsheviks destabilized things, but I don't remember whether he was still there when Lenin took over. He did return during the 1920s. He mentioned that some Westerners had criticized the Bolsheviks for reducing people to poverty; Farson instead was impressed by the improvement in living conditions. We speak of the French Revolution, not Revolutions, despite the frequent coups during the period. Apr 18, 2023 at 23:36
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    @haxor789 Sorry for the confusion, to clarify, I was talking about the Great October Socialist Revolution, the second one, which resulted in overthrowing the Provisional Government and led to the formation of Soviet Union in 1922. Stating that it came too early I wanted to say that there was no necessary support for the ideology itself in the form of technological progress by the time it was established.
    – NotYourFox
    May 21, 2023 at 10:17

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