The history of communism encompasses a wide variety of ideologies and political movements sharing the core theoretical values of common ownership of wealth, economic enterprise and property. Most modern forms of communism are grounded at least nominally in Marxism, a theory and method conceived by Karl Marx during the 19th century. Marxism subsequently gained a widespread following across much of Europe and throughout the late 1800s its militant supporters were instrumental in a number of failed revolutions on that continent. During the same era, there was also a proliferation of communist parties which rejected armed revolution, but embraced the Marxist ideal of collective property and a classless society.
Although Marxist theory suggested that the places ripest for social revolution, either through peaceful transition or by force of arms, were industrial societies, communism was mostly successful in underdeveloped countries with endemic poverty such as the Russian Empire and the Republic of China. In 1917, the Bolshevik Party seized power during the Russian Revolution and created the Soviet Union, the world’s first self-declaredsocialist state. The Bolsheviks thoroughly embraced the concept of proletarian internationalism and world revolution, seeing their struggle as an international rather than a purely regional cause. This was to have a phenomenal impact on the spread of communism during the 20th century as the Soviet Union installed new Marxist–Leninist governments in Central and Eastern Europe following World War II and indirectly backed the ascension of others in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Pivotal to this policy was the Communist International, also known as the Comintern, formed with the perspective of aiding and assisting communist parties around the world and fostering revolution. This was one major cause of tensions during the Cold War as the United States and its military allies equated the global spread of communism with Soviet expansionism by proxy.
By 1985, one-third of the world’s population lived under a Marxist–Leninist system of government in one form or another. However, there was significant debate among communist and Marxist ideologues as to whether most of these countries could be meaningfully considered Marxist at all since many of the basic components of the Marxist system were altered and revised by such countries. The failure of these governments to live up to the ideal of a communist society as well as their general trend towards increasing authoritarianism has been linked to the decline of communism in the late 20th century. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, several Marxist–Leninist states repudiated or abolished the ideology altogether. As of the 21st century, only a small number of Marxist–Leninist states remain, namely China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam.
Many historical groups have been considered as following forms of communism. Karl Marx and other early communist theorists believed that hunter-gatherer societies as were found in the Paleolithic through to horticultural societies as found in the Chalcolithic were essentially egalitarian and he, therefore, termed their ideology to be primitive communism. One of the first writers to espouse a belief in the primitive communism of the past was the RomanStoic philosopher Seneca who stated,” How happy was the primitive age when the bounties of nature lay in common…They held all nature in common which gave them secure possession of the public wealth.” Because of this he believed that such primitive societies were the richest as there was no poverty. Other Greco-Roman writers that believed in a prehistoric humanity that practiced communism include Diodorus Siculus, Virgil, and Ovid. Similarly the early Church Fathers, like their pagan predecessors, maintained that humans society had declined to its current state from a now lost egalitarian social order.
Around the late 5th century BC in Ancient Greece, ideas similar to communism were becoming widespread to the extent that they were parodied by the dramatist Aristophanes in his comedy The Assemblywomen in which the women of Athens seize control of the Ecclesia or city government and abolish all private property while making the sharing or women and the collective rearing of children mandatory. Over a decade later in Plato’s RepublicSocrates declares that an ideal state would eliminate all forms of private property among the elite of society to the extent that even children and wives are shared. He asserts that such practices would prevent internal conflict within a society and promote a sense of unity and common identity. Around AD 500 in Iran, the Zoroastrian priest and reformist Mazdak purportedly founded a movement preaching religious communism while under the patronage of the SassanianKingKavad I who initially supported the priest and his reforms, but later had the Mazdakians repressed and Mazdak executed.