Communism: definition, types and main characteristics


Communism is a political, economic and social doctrine. Its main objective is to achieve social equality through the elimination of private ownership of the means of production. It is usually classified as an ultra-left doctrine due to the radical nature of its approaches. This is a review of the main characteristics of communism. We also mention its origins and main types. Finally, we explain in brief what is the main difference between communism and socialism.

Definition of communism

This doctrine is founded on the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For the authors the capitalist model, based on private ownership of the means of production, was responsible for the class struggle. That is, for social inequality.

This doctrine proposes that the means of production be handed over to the proletariat. The working class would make it possible to establish relations of equality between the different social actors. It will also guarantee an equitable distribution of wealth. The final stage would be the disappearance of the state.

What is communism?

The communist doctrine emerged as a critique of industrial capitalism, fully established in the first half of the 19th century. Industrialization had brought many consequences. Such as rapid urbanization, formation of the working class and the segmentation of the bourgeoisie class (petty and upper bourgeoisie).

Consequently, the social gap between the peasantry and proletariat, and the upper bourgeoisie was widening. All the while the latter had gained an absolute control over the means of production, the means of information and capital.

Since the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848, the communist doctrine greatly influenced European society. This seminal text was written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on behalf of the London Communist League.

Later, the issues of capital and capitalism were extensively studied in Karl Marx’s book Capital, published in 1867. This work has actually served as the basis for different interpretations of communism.

Spread of communism

A communist regime was established for the first time in Russia following the Russian Revolution of 1917 (the Bolshevik revolution). This was a consequence of the crisis of the tsarist regime, aggravated with the advent of the First World War. The process led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which disintegrated only in 1989. The influence of Marxist thought, has been decisive in the Russian formulation of Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism.

Communist countries

Besides Russia, communism as a political system was also implemented in countries like North Korea (1948), China (1949), North Vietnam (1945), South Vietnam after reunification (1976), Cuba (1959), Laos (1975) and the Moldovan Republic of Transnistria (1990).

Main characteristics of communism

1. Born as a critique of capitalism

Communist thought emerged as a critique of liberal capitalism developed in Europe since the industrial revolution. This form of capitalism involved the transformation of the modes of production and, consequently, of the social order. The consolidation of the upper bourgeoisie as the dominant class was one of the most important transformations. However, the emergence of the working class, mass society, the absolutization of capital as a social value and growing social inequalities, were also significant.

2. Introduces the concepts of structure and superstructure

According to Marx and Engels, a structure and a superstructure can be distinguished in capitalist society. The structure would be made up of society and the productive apparatus. The superstructure corresponds to the institutions that control the social imaginary (culture) and justify inequality. These are the capitalist state, the educational system, academic institutions, religion, etc.

3. The principle of class conflict

The theory is justified by the existence of class struggle and the need to achieve socio economic equality. If the upper bourgeoisie is the owner of the means of production, the proletariat is the labor force. Thus, the latter is subordinate to the power of the former.

According to communist thought, under capitalism the proletariat has no control over the means of production, nor over the profits it generates. This leads to exploitation, oppression and alienation. Therefore, there is an inherent tension in the system that must be released through revolution and the establishment of a new order.

4. Alienation as a social problem

Communism maintains that alienation is a social problem and not strictly individual. The doctrine conceives it as the naturalization and ideological justification of social inequality, exploitation and oppression. Alienation is promoted by the dominant culture and is responsible for the proletariat not becoming aware of its condition. This in turn favors the perpetuation of the capitalist system. Therefore, the revolution aims to awaken social consciousness.

5. Proposes the elimination of private property

In order for class equality and the end of exploitation to be possible, private property of the means of production must be eliminated. This in turn translates into workers’ control over them through unions and collective grassroots organizations. Since there are no owners, neither exploitation nor inequality can exist.

6. It is anti-individualistic

Communism opposes individualism, since it makes class consciousness a fundamental principle and interprets individualism as a capitalist trait. For this reason, every individual is seen as an expression of his class. However, only the proletarian class is considered as a genuine representation of the “people” and the common good. In this sense, social self-promotion and individual economic freedom are not welcome.

7. Bourgeoisie as the main enemy of the people

Communists see the bourgeoisie as the enemy. This is not limited only to the upper bourgeoisie, owners of the means of production. But also to the medium and small bourgeoisie that normally occupy state, academic, professional, cultural and religious institutions. They are held responsible for the ideological formation of capitalism (superstructure).

8. Autonomous society as a final goal

From a theoretical point of view, communism maintains that society will eventually learn to regulate itself. There would be no need for the intervention of the state or a ruling elite. No historical experience of a communist regime has reached this level.

9. Communist regimes self-promote as people’s conscience

Since becoming an autonomous society is a long process, it is up to the revolutionary state to guarantee the distribution of wealth. Communist regimes seek to act, therefore, as the conscience of the people. These regimes are the only valid interpreters of their needs and the only administrators of their goods (sole distributors of wealth).

10. Promotes a one-party system

According to communist theory, an egalitarian society is a product of a unitary political culture. Which in turn is a justification for rejecting ideological diversity and promoting one-party system. However, since communist regimes promote themselves as popular and democratic systems, the single-party system may not result in the outlawing of opposition parties. Opposition is usually demoralized, persecuted and cornered.

11. State capitalism

In some communist models, the expropriated means of production remain under the absolute control of the state, which also controls the unions. For this reason, there is a tendency of communist regimes to lead to state capitalism, which acts as a monopolizing entity.

12. Totalitarianism

Communist regimes tend to penetrate all areas of social life by virtue of their anti-individualistic principles. Thus, in communist regimes it is common to observe control and censorship of communications and educational systems. Interference of the State in family matters, one-party system, political persecution, and the prohibition of religion are also common. It is also characterized by the nationalization of the media, production, banking and financial systems and the perpetuation of the ruling elite in power.

Main types


This is the name that Marx gave to a primary phase of the historical processes of economic and social formation. According to Marx, this phase was characterized by common ownership of the means of production. There was a small productive force and more equal distribution of wealth.

For Marx, this type corresponded to the most primitive form of productive society. It is production, prior to the time of the division of labor. According to Marx this was a consequence of the defenseless state of the individual when there were not yet institutionalized forms of society.


This type refers to the state prior to Marxist thought, going to the origin of communist thought and closer to utopia. They are closely related to the theory of utopian socialism. In this system the organized group prevails over individualism.


It is an evolution of the previously described type, with the development of the capitalist world and the Industrial Revolution. Utopian communist hold ideas close to the pure egalitarianism of goods and means of production, eliminating private property completely. In other words, their vision is a society free from exploitation and social inequalities.


As with scientific socialism, communist theories were ordered and structured following the scientific method. It is the moment when critical and scientific study of history and economics took over, in sharp contrast to the utopian tendencies described above.

Difference between communism and socialism

Although there is a tendency to identify socialism with communism, both doctrines differ widely in their goal and in the means of achieving it.

The communist goal is the elimination of social classes and the establishment of absolute social equality. Eventually, this would result in the disappearance of the state. The only means to achieve this is to eliminate the private ownership of the means of production.

In contrast, socialism presupposes regulation of the balance between different social classes, as well as the regulation of state power through citizen participation.

Even though socialism accepts the Marxist principle of class struggle insofar as it mobilizes social change, it does not question private property.

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