Communist Parties Research Paper

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Originating after the Russian Revolution of November 1917, communist parties developed into a distinctive organizational form with a characteristic political ideology and an integral personal identity for their members. Modeled deliberately on the example of the Russian original, those communist parties that had remained faithful to the Soviet Union generally either declined or underwent radical transformation when the Soviet state collapsed in 1991.

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In March 1918 Vladimir Lenin urged his victorious ‘Bolshevik’ (‘majoritarian’) faction of the Russian social democratic party to reconstitute itself under the name ‘All-Russian Communist Party (bolsheviks),’ known by its Russian initials as the RKP(b) and later renamed communist party of the Soviet Union. By this act of renaming, Lenin meant to signify that the former Bolsheviks would oppose replacement of Tsarist rule with parliamentary social democracy in Russia. They would stand instead for establishment of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a deliberately coercive device for prohibiting political activity in pursuit of any goal other than communism, defined by Karl Marx as a society combining contribution ac- cording to ability with consumption according to need.

A year later Lenin convened his supporters together with foreign sympathizers resident in Moscow and a few delegates from other socialist parties who man- aged to make their way to the Russian capital, where they established the ‘Communist International,’ or Comintern. At its Second Congress in August 1920, this organization’s leaders laid down the ‘21 conditions’ which gave definition to the identity of communist parties. The three most important conditions obligated communist parties to practice democratic centralism, organizational exclusivity, and defense of the Soviet Union. ‘Democratic centralism’ came to mean that in a communist party, all local organizations, and all individual members must obligate themselves to comply with directives of a national directorate. This ‘centralist’ principle was to work in combination with the ‘democratic’ principle that the national directorate (called a ‘Central Committee’) must be elected by delegates from the local organizations and accept information from them about their local activities. Because the centralist principle included the Central Committee’s right to nominate the sole candidate for obligatory election by the local organization (‘committee’) as its leader, in fact democratic centralism conferred on the Central Committee the right to select its own electors.

Organizational exclusivity obligated the communist party to separate itself from any socialist party, prohibiting joint membership in the two parties. Accompanying this requirement was a demand that even where communist parties could operate legally, a communist party must maintain a clandestine organization for illegal revolutionary activities.

All members of communist parties were further required ‘to render every possible assistance’ (Daniels 1984) to the Soviet state, especially against the policies of their own governments. Lenin’s ultimate successor Joseph Stalin would in 1927 transform this expectation into a definition of communist internationalism as the readiness ‘unreservedly, unhesitatingly and without conditions … to defend the USSR’ (Stern 1990). By imposing internal discipline enforced by the right of central leaders to remove local opponents, an organizational split with other Marxists, and a Russia-centered conception of the party’s mission, the 21 conditions required foreign communist Parties to reprise the organizational history of the Soviet exemplar. As communist Parties emerged around the world, encouraged both by the success of the Soviet Party in establishing Russia’s independence from foreign domination and by clandestine monetary subsidies from the Soviet comrades, they became identifiable by their adherence to a common political ideology known as Marxism–Leninism. Of course from the very beginning Marxism–Leninism existed in many variants. The 21 conditions were themselves an effort to enforce a minimal degree of uniformity on diverse conceptions of communist identity. Adherence to the ideas of ‘Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky’ characterized the Trotskyists who soon broke off in a ‘Fourth International’ whose adherents still exist (winning 5.3 percent of the vote in the 1995 French presidential election). ‘Marxism–Leninism–Maoism’ became the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and of the splinter parties that broke off from national communist parties after the Chinese definitively split with the Soviets in 1963. Italian communists continued to be influenced by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, whose independent conception of the reasons why the working class in industrial countries remained politically quiescent bore far more democratic implications than Lenin’s own explanation of worker passivity. Until Stalin’s death, the Soviet Party referred to its own ideology as ‘Marxism–Leninism–Stalinism.’

Despite this diversity, communist political thought has generally shared certain core elements. Communists have classed their own political thinking as ‘theoretical’ in contrast to the ‘ideological’ programs of other political parties. They have affirmed a theoretical postulate identifying political parties with the economic interest of classes. This postulate defines ‘class’ as joining all persons who make their living in the same way and ‘class interest’ as the perpetuation of that way of making a living (as opposed, for example, to increasing the incomes of the individuals who compose a class). The same postulate identifies each communist party with a ‘proletariat,’ as the class of persons who earn their living by selling (‘alienating’) their labor to someone else. Communists have generally insisted that in the long run the proletariat can only avoid the fate of mass unemployment if it succeeds in over-throwing capitalism, i.e., the system of buying and selling labor as a commodity. In the short run, state ownership of industrial enterprises has tended to be regarded as a means of maintaining the proletariat against capitalist pressure. Communists are further distinguished from other Marxists by a view that agricultural smallholders are likely to be promising allies in shortening the road to the abolition of capitalism. Finally, both the long-run goal of abolish-ing capitalism and various short-run interests of the proletariat have been considered achievable only by a ‘vanguard party,’ one which relies on theoretical analysis to identify the interests of the proletariat rather than consulting the proletarians themselves. Where they engage in electoral competition, communists have seen their task as educating voters in the voters’ true interests rather than responding to expression of interest by voters. Where they have acquired control of the state, communists have portrayed their task as preventing other parties from deceiving the proletariat by running their own in-dependent candidates.

Because of the commitments to democratic centralism and to the theoretical self-understanding as a vanguard party, communists could only be ‘cadres,’ although in a sense distinct from the usage of this term introduced into political science by Maurice Duverger. By a ‘cadre party’ Duverger meant a nineteenth-century association of notables, who drew their personal identities from birth or achievement and saw the party as a device to help win contests for office (Duverger 1963). To a communist, ‘cadre’ took its meaning from Lenin’s conception of the party member as a full-time professional revolutionary. A communist cadre, at least ideally, has derived his or her personal identity solely from self-transformation into an agent of the party. Democratic centralism provides that every party member may immediately be redeployed, regardless of his or her personal will, to any place or duty at the discretion of the central party authority. This total commitment gave an integral, all-or-nothing quality to the personal identity of a communist. As Stalin once told the Soviet Central Committee, ‘Either you are nothing in the eyes of the party or you are a party member with full rights’ (Arch Getty and Naumov 1999). Ken Jowitt has argued that this integral conception of personal identity accounts for communist parties’ difficulties in attracting adherents in industrial societies, contrary to Marx’s expectation that only these societies were ripe for communist ideas, because the complexity of industrial society encourages people to develop identities contextualized to varying situations. Conversely communist parties were more successful in attracting adherents in agrarian societies where less social diversity and more rigid subordination limited the fragmentation of selfhood (Jowitt 1992). Integral identification of the self with the party makes more comprehensible both the exceptional violence practiced by many communist parties, in whose eyes the victims were ‘nothing,’ and the extraordinary selflessness displayed by communists in such movements as the World War II Resistance against German occupiers or struggles for civil rights and economic justice in many countries. Where communist parties managed to gain control of the state, it is questionable whether they remained ‘parties’ at all. Communists became the rulers of the Soviet Union, eight countries in Eastern Europe, China and five other Asian countries, and Cuba. If by a ‘party’ we mean an organization that competes for political power by supplying candidates for executive or legislative office and by maintaining a coalition among its candidates after they win, then it is questionable whether ruling communist parties qualified. Of course a monopolist may be said to compete, so successfully as to exclude all rivals. But ruling communist parties performed three functions not usually associated with political parties, acting as territorial administrations, personnel offices for their governments, and ultimate policy makers. In the Soviet Union, the first secretary heading each local party committee was the ultimate authority over all government activity in the territory assigned to the committee. The highest ranking local government official was a subordinate of the first secretary, sitting as a member of the committee’s bureau acting under the first secretary’s direction and likely, at a later stage in his career, to be promoted into the position of first secretary. The first secretary was expected to exercise his plenipotentiary authority by recommending appointment or dismissal of all officials within the territory, with the exception of those officials whose appointment or dismissal could be recommended only by some higher party committee. The Political Bureau (‘Politburo’) of the Central Committee in turn ‘recommended’ policies to the appropriate government agencies, enforcing compliance with its policy recommendations by exercising its right to making binding recommendations about appointment or dismissal of the relevant officials. Where communist parties did not secure control of the state, they also did not practice these methods of rule, but at the same time their overt identification with the practice of complete penetration of the state hampered their electoral campaigns by stimulating suspicion among voters accustomed to distinguish party activities from conduct of government.

The collapse or transformation of many communist parties after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted from their close identification with the Soviet State. Decline was not solely the result of the dis-appearance of monetary subsidies on which many parties had subsisted and others had drawn. From the beginning communists had conceived themselves as those Marxists loyal to the Soviet Union and ready to accept its authenticity as the revolutionary workers’ state. Communist parties had repeatedly lost members or suffered organizational splits whenever events had dramatized the discrepancy between the emancipatory ideals of Marxism and the practices of the Soviet rulers. Such events as executions of senior Soviet officials in 1937–8, the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin’s crimes against the party and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising that resulted, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the suppression of the Polish labor movement Solidarnosc in 1980–1 had impelled waves of resignations from communist parties around the world. The reciprocal denunciations in 1963 by the Chinese and Soviet parties led to formation of parallel Maoist parties in most countries where communist parties existed. While the reforms known as perestroika championed by Mikhail S. Gorbachev after 1985 briefly encouraged some foreign communists loyal to the Soviet party, popular uprisings against ruling parties in Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 and the defeat of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev led many foreign communist parties to reconceive their identity. Lenin had said that the adoption of the name ‘communist’ was far more than a formal act; in East European states formerly ruled by communist parties, remnants of those organizations hurried to relabel themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘democratic socialists,’ while the independent-minded Italian Communist Party preferred ‘Democratic Party of the Left.’ Although the pattern of decline was mixed, with the independent Communist Party of Spain retaining its name and gaining adherents, the once powerful French Communist Party, noted for its loyalty to Moscow, found its support among voters dwindling, with former sup-porters deserting to the Socialists or even to the far-right National Front. Just as communist parties as a distinctive form of political organization had originated with the Soviet State and developed their identifying features by emulating Russian forms, so the collapse of the Soviet order ended the cohesiveness of communist parties as an identifiable phenomenon.


  1. Arch Getty J, Naumov O V 1999 The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932–1939, trans. Sher B, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, p. 233
  2. Daniels R V (ed.) 1984 A Documentary History of Communism, Vol. 2: ‘Communism and the World’. University Press of New England, Hanover, VT, p. 46
  3. Duverger M 1963 Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State, 3rd edn. Wiley, New York, pp. 63–4
  4. Jowitt K 1992 New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction X. University of California, New Haven, CT, esp. pp. 67–87, 125
  5. Stern G 1990 The Rise and Decline of International Communism. Edward Elgar, Brookfield, VT, p. 71
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