Yuri lived in a Communist society – so what is ‘Communism’?


This is another post in our series looking at some of the key terms and ideas which shaped Yuri Gagarin’s world, but which are perhaps becoming less well understood by the generations who came after the Cold War. One of the most fundamentally important of these is Communism, the political idea on which the Soviet Union was based.

When German emigré academic Karl Marx wrote his massive work ‘Das Capital’ toward the end of the nineteenth century, he was not only trying to analyse how capitalism, – the system of free-market economics – worked, he was arguing that it contained the seeds of its own destruction. Out of it, he claimed, would emerge a new kind of economy and a new kind of politics, in which the working classes would be the main power in society, and property would be held in common, hence: ‘Communism’.

Inspired by this, a revolutionary movement was born, led by people who were not content to sit around and wait for it to happen, but who wanted to help things along. This revolutionary movement gave rise to the ‘Communist International’, a loose organisation of Communist political parties. Marx himself gave some support to the movement, but remained doubtful as to whether history could be ‘nudged’ in this way. The revolution, according to him, would occur naturally in the most advanced capitalist states, the UK, Germany and the USA. Instead, his ideas were taken up by what were then ‘developing world’ countries, Russia and China, in an attempt to ‘leapfrog’ their economies into a modern future.

The early ideals of Communism as being ‘by and for the people’, were betrayed by the oppressive, totalitarian nature of the governments and societies that developed. Personal freedom was severely limited, and secret police, political arrests, torture and killings gave them a reputation for repression which rivalled the Nazis and which earned the lasting hatred of many countries subjected to Communist rule by more powerful states.

Nevertheless, at the time of Yuri’s success, the years of Stalin’s dictatorship in Russia were over, and for a while it really did look as though Communism might be going to deliver on its promises of peace and plenty for all. For a short while, Yuri became an international symbol of that dream. Only a few decades later however, the Soviet Union’s communist state was to implode under the strains of its own economic problems and the desire of the people for political freedom.

A small number of communist states and political parties survive today. The largest state is China, which, although it allows a great deal of free-market economics, is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. One of the smallest is North Korea, which clings to a very hard-line version of communism that Stalin would have recognised.

In some European countries Communist parties of various shades of opinion have existed legally since before the Second World War. In local government, particularly in Italy, they have legitimately held power through democratic elections for considerable periods.

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