“A specter is haunting Europe,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed in the ringing opening lines of The Communist Manifesto: “the specter of Communism.” The phrase proved more prophetic than they could have known. While communism existed as a philosophy and a political system, its greatest impact on the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came less from these realities and more from the spectral image it cast, an image that haunted the hopes of intellectuals and the fears of ruling elites across the world.

Though it took Marx hundreds of pages of fine print to explain communism, the core concepts are simple enough. Social classes, according to Marx, are groups of people with a common relationship to the means of economic production, and the struggle between classes is the driving force of history. Industrial society is split into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and live on their investments, and the proletariat who work the means of production and survive on wage labor. Since all economic value is the result of labor by the proletariat, the bourgeoisie are a parasitic class; the proletariat receives a fraction of the value of its labor while the bourgeoisie batten on the rest. Since competition imposes progressively lower wages and worse working conditions on the proletariat, workers will eventually rebel, overthrowing the bourgeoisie and seizing the means of production. The result, at least in Marx’s theory, is communism, a society of universal justice in which economic production would serve human needs rather than bourgeois greed.

This ideology appealed powerfully to the intellectuals who made up the mainstay of the European Left through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet one of the paradoxes of communism throughout its history was that it was always at least partly a creation of its opponents. As historian James Billington pointed out, in Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980), the word “communism” appeared before there were any communists to proclaim it, and it gained most of its popularity when it was used by conservatives to attack their liberal opponents. Though the word was probably coined in French radical circles in the late 1830s, its first documented use was in a German conservative newspaper on March 11, 1840: “The Communists have in view nothing less than a levelling of society – substituting for the presently-existing order of things the absurd, immoral and impossible utopia of a community of goods” (quoted in Billington 1980, p. 246).

Since the idea of public ownership of land, housing, and factories hardly seemed absurd, immoral, or impossible to working people trapped in the fetid industrial slums of nineteenth-century Europe, attempts by conservatives to launch communism as a bogey to frighten the masses succeeded mostly in providing free publicity to the first successful radical movement to adopt the name. While a handful of political factions in France tried to lay claim to it in the early 1840s, Karl Marx made it his own later in that decade with his first significant publications on political economy. In 1847 the League of the Just – one of the major political secret societies in Europe – embraced Marxist theory and renamed itself the Communist League. Marx and his colleague Engels responded by writing The Communist Manifesto and permanently defined Communism in Marxist terms. See League of the Just.

The newborn movement grew up in a world powerfully shaped by secret societies. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, secret organizations such as the Philadelphes and the Carbonari, originally founded to oppose Napoleon’s betrayal of the French Revolution, became lightning rods for nationalist aspirations and sparked more than a dozen revolutions against the conservative monarchies of the early nineteenth century. The very mixed success of these revolutions, which took power from the hands of kings and aristocracies only to hand it over to industrialists and bankers, drove a steady leftward drift in the political secret societies. Thus the Philadelphes, which started out in 1797 as a Republican secret society, by 1864 helped to create the First International. See Carbonari; First International; Philadelphes.

Yet communism came on the scene just as most of the radical political movements in Europe were turning away from secret societies to establish political parties, labor unions, and mass movements. The new ideology’s rhetoric of mass struggle made it appealing to leftists who saw little hope in secret conspiracies. As a result, though communism borrowed some features from the older secret society tradition, it saw itself as a mass movement even when the masses wanted nothing to do with it.

This was particularly true during the long years when Marxism was only one among many movements on the Left. During the late twentieth century, propagandists for communism and capitalism alike liked to picture the history of the modern world as a contest between these two alone, but until the Second World War the options were much wider. Anarchism offered major competition to Marxist parties, and lesser-known traditions such as distributism, social credit, guild socialism, corporatism, and many others contended for influence. Many radicals criticized Marxism just as severely as capitalism. Thus Polish anarchist Waclaw Machajski, for example, argued presciently in his 1898 book The Intellectual Worker that a Marxist revolution would simply transfer power from business owners to government bureaucrats. See Anarchism.

It took a century of turmoil and two world wars to reduce the crowded playing field of political and economic ideologies to a forced choice between two contenders. The First World War and its aftermath in Russia was the major turning point in the process. The Socialist Second International had long discussed stopping a European war in its tracks by launching a general strike in the combatant nations, but in 1914 not one Socialist party or labor union followed through on these plans, and the Second International collapsed shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. See Second International.

In the aftermath of the Second International’s failure, the Russian revolution of 1917 came like a thunderbolt. The fact that the Bolsheviks had succeeded where every other party on the Left had failed, taking absolute power in an entire nation and abolishing the capitalist system there, put them instantly at the forefront of the radical movement worldwide. Followers of most competing systems on the Left, including major leaders such as the anarchist Emma Goldman, rallied around the Bolshevik banner. The Bolsheviks made this easy by inviting anarchists, syndicalists, and non-Marxist labor unions to take part in the Third or Communist International, founded in 1919 amid widespread expectations that a proletarian revolution would follow in the rest of Europe. See Russian revolution; Third International.

Attempted communist revolutions in Hungary, Bavaria, and Yugoslavia failed, however, and as the new Russian government turned its attention to maintaining its own power, leftists who joined the Third International found themselves expected to obey orders from Moscow that focused purely on the goals of Russian foreign policy. The result was a series of schisms between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions on the left. These splits played an important role in weakening the Left and leaving much of central Europe vulnerable to the fascist parties that seized power in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Second World War completed the transformation launched by the First. Hitler’s crusade against “Jewish Bolshevism” ironically did much to save the Soviet Union from its own incompetence. German brutality bolstered Russians’ wavering support of Stalin’s government, while shipments of war material from the United States gave the Soviet system an economic and technological boost that helped overcome its internal problems. The establishment of the Iron Curtain after the war was made easy by the Nazi annihilation of moderate Socialist and Social Democrat parties in most eastern European countries. See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

In an important sense, though, communism went out of existence in the years after the Second World War. In the bare-knuckle politics of the Cold War, “communist” came to mean nothing more than “allied with Russia.” The leaders of Third World countries learned to mouth communist slogans when they wanted help disentangling themselves from the grip of American business interests, and radical parties in western Europe and elsewhere knew that using Marxist language and symbolism got them more attention than anything else, but few people anywhere went beyond slogans and symbols to study ideas that had shaken the world a century before.

By the 1990s, as the Soviet Union broke apart and China announced it was adopting a “market socialist” economy, the specter of communism haunted nothing but the history books. Its passing left a gaping void on the radical Left, which abandoned philosophy for ideology in the early twentieth century and so had few resources left for the difficult task of formulating a new critique of society, and an equally yawning gap on the radical Right, which lost most of its claim to relevance once the enemy it claimed to be fighting went out of existence. Many in both camps have tried to fill the void with resources borrowed from contemporary conspiracy theory, with the curious result that in many western countries, rhetoric about the New World Order has become the common property of both ends of the political spectrum. See New World Order.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006