Communism, as a theory and as a social movement, centers on the lack of private property and the organization of society such that all members have equal status both economically and socially. Under a communist system, labor would be divided among citizens according to their interests and abilities, and resources would be distributed corresponding to need. By such a vision, government itself would be replaced by communism, that is, by the communal ownership of all property. Communism is also thought to be the abolition of all forms of oppression, whether in the form of oppression of people by people, of countries by countries, of classes by classes, or any other form of oppression.
Although early views of communism, promoted by Plato during the 4th century BC and by later perspectives during the 1600s, advocated communal ownership of property on a small scale, Karl Marx conceived of communism as a revolutionary movement that had potential at the global scale. He envisioned that society would move through successive phases—feudalism, capitalism, and then socialism.
In 1848, Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, in which they described communism as an inevitable outcome of the fact that in most societies the wealth and means of production (i.e., natural resources and infrastructure) are controlled by a small elite. Under capitalist systems, this group of people, whom Marx referred to as the bourgeoisie, purchased from the majority of the population their labor and sold the results of their work for a profit. This imbalance of power and economic wealth, Marx argued, created different classes of citizens and established an unbalanced and unsustainable distribution of wealth. At some point, Marx argued, members of the working class, which he referred to as the proletariat, would organize themselves to overthrow the bourgeoisie elite and to redistribute wealth more equitably.
Unlike social democrats (e.g., the Social Democratic Party in Germany, the British Labour Party) who have believed that communism could be brought about by democratic means, Vladimir Lenin maintained that revolution, initially in less economically developed states such as Russia, was necessary to transform society to communism. Lenin’s work inspired Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, both of whom contributed much to building and strengthening the Communist party in Russia and, shortly thereafter, in the Soviet Union. According to Lenin, the establishment of a Communist party was a political necessity within a communist system, but critics have argued that the Communist party in the Soviet Union served the interests of a politically powerful elite rather than benefiting the populace as a whole.
From a Marxist perspective, Soviet-style communism failed because it attempted to move society directly from feudalism to socialism without the intermediary phase of capitalism. Other factors recognized as contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thus the end of the cold war, include the Soviet Union’s inability to afford the arms race against the United States and the plummeting world oil prices during the early 1970s that denied the oil-exporting Soviet Union much-needed income for the purchase of food and other basic goods. Communism continues to shape political practice in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam, but Communist parties in these contexts differ greatly from each other.