COMMUNISM

What it is: A political belief that the best kind of society is one in which there are no class distinctions and no privately-owned property or businesses (as opposed to capitalism, where private owners compete for business and profits, with the workers receiving a wage rather than an equal share).

What it means: In a communist society, everyone would share both ownership and profits. People would be expected to work hard 'according to ability', and to benefit 'according to need'. The communist ideal, a form of social democracy, was first proposed by Karl Marx (1818-1883). Not surprisingly it was very attractive to working people, whose incomes and lives were dependent on the rich, and many began to encourage revolution. A government by the Communist Party was set up in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, but the saying that 'power corrupts' was quickly proved true. Communist leaders became obsessed by the desire to control, and the government quickly became secretive, oppressive and terrifying (especially during Stalin's dictatorship, under which many millions were killed and executed or sent to brutal work-camps).  It also set up groups to promote Communism in other countries, and Communist governments were imposed on countries occupied by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. In the 1980s there was a movement towards individual freedom, and the people of most Communist countries successfully rebelled against repression. Different versions of Communist rule have continued in parts of Asia. The basic principles of Communism continue to be debated (and people continue to set up communes on a small scale), but history shows that putting them into practice means some loss of basic freedoms, which have to be given up voluntarily rather than by force if this kind of socialism is to work.

Think about it: Some former colonies gained independence with the help of Communist leaders and the promise of equality and work for all. Almost all to some degree became Communist dictatorships. Can one work out how easily that could happen? What might it be that makes it difficult for people to put shared ownership into practice? Are there ways in which Communism could be more successfully tried out? How has it been working in China, Cuba or North Korea?