Communist Revolutions Research Paper

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The great Communist revolutions of the twentieth century, especially those of Russia and China, drew upon the eighteenth century “liberal” or “democratic” revolutions of America and France. But the Communist revolutions, executed by highly organized parties guided by Marxist ideology, were committed to an industrial future. They pursued economic as well as political equality, and they sought the abolition of private property.

During the twentieth century Communist parties came to power in a number of countries and in a number of ways. In Russia (1917) and China (1949), Communist parties seized power as part of vast revolutionary upheavals that swept away long-established societies and political systems. In sparsely populated Mongolia an independence movement against Chinese control turned for help to the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and subsequently established a Communist state closely allied to the Soviet Union. After World War II Communist regimes were established in several countries of central and Eastern Europe, largely imposed by Soviet military forces that had liberated these countries—eastern Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria—from Nazi rule. The local Communist parties that the Soviets installed in power initially had some popular support deriving from their commitment to reform and social justice and from their role in resistance to the Nazis. But in Yugoslavia and Albania Communist parties genuinely independent of the Soviet Union also came to power with considerable popular support.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, its Korean colony was partitioned, with the northern half coming under Soviet and therefore Communist control. In Vietnam a much more locally based Communist and nationalist movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh battled Japanese, French, and later U.S. invaders and established Communist control first throughout the northern half of the country and after 1974 throughout the whole country. The victory of the Vietnamese Communists spilled over into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, where Communist parties took power during the mid-1970s. In the Caribbean Fidel Castro led a revolutionary nationalist movement against a repressive and U.S.-backed regime in Cuba and after coming to power in 1959 moved rapidly toward Communism and an alliance with the Soviet Union. Finally, a shaky Communist regime took power in Afghanistan in 1979, propped up briefly only by massive Soviet military support. At its maximum extent during the 1970s, Communism encompassed about one-third of the world’s population and created a deep division in the world community.

Communist and Democratic Revolutions

The great Communist revolutions of the twentieth century, especially those of Russia and China, drew upon the “liberal” or “democratic” revolutions of the eighteenth century, such as the American (1776) and particularly the French (1789). Communist revolutionaries, like their French counterparts, believed that violent upheavals could open the way to new and better worlds constructed by human hands, but they worried lest their revolutions end up in a military dictatorship like that of Napoleon after the French Revolution. Like the French Revolution, those of Russia and China also involved vast peasant upheavals in the countryside, an educated urban leadership, the overthrow of old ruling classes, the dispossession of landed aristocracies, the end of ancient monarchies, and hostility to established religion. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China, like the French, “devoured their own children.” All three turned on some of their most faithful followers: in the French Terror (Reign of Terror, a period of the revolution characterized by executions of presumed enemies of the state); in Communist leader Joseph Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union; and in Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).

But the Communist revolutions were distinctive as well. They were executed by highly organized parties guided by a Marxist ideology; they were committed to an industrial future; they pursued economic as well as political equality; and they sought the abolition of private property. In doing so they mobilized, celebrated, and claimed to act on behalf of society’s lower classes— exploited urban workers and impoverished rural peasants. The propertied middle classes, who were the chief beneficiaries of the French Revolution, numbered among the many victims of the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Communist revolutions, unlike the French and American revolutions, also made special efforts on behalf of women, granting them legal and political equality, sponsoring family reform, and actively mobilizing women for the workforce. Whereas the French and American revolutions spurred political democracy— although gradually—all of the Communist revolutions generated highly repressive authoritarian governments that sought almost total control over their societies, exercised by Communist Party elites or by single leaders such as Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Castro.

Comparing the Russian and Chinese Revolutions

Despite a common Marxist ideology and a disciplined party determined to achieve power, the Russian and Chinese revolutions differed in many ways. In Russia the Communists (Bolsheviks) came to power less than a year after the Romanov czarist regime collapsed in 1917, whereas the Chinese Communist Party had to struggle for decades after the demise of imperial China (1911/12) before seizing power. Thus, Russia’s civil war occurred after the Communists took control (1918–1921), whereas in China prolonged conflict between the Communist Party and the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party), led by Chiang Kai-shek, took place before the Communists seized power. Furthermore, Russia’s Communists based themselves in the cities and drew their most devoted followers from the urban working class, whereas China’s revolution occurred primarily in the country’s vast rural hinterland, with peasants as a primary source of recruits. This difference reflected the much greater industrial development of the Russian economy. Russia’s peasants did join the revolution in the summer of 1917, but they did so spontaneously and without the active rural involvement of the Communist Party that was so important in China.

World war nurtured both of these revolutions, although in different ways. In Russia the Communists gained credibility by opposing their country’s participation in World War I, arguing that it was an imperialist conflict that socialists scorned. However, in China the Communists gained much popular support by vigorously leading their country’s opposition to Japanese aggression in World War II. China was a victim of imperialist aggression rather than a participant in it, and the Communists cast themselves as defenders of the nation far more decisively than did their Russian counterparts. Furthermore, because theirs was the first Communist revolution, the Russians faced almost universal hostility from established capitalist states. Later revolutions in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere had the support of an established Communist power— the Soviet Union—in their struggles. They were joining an already established Communist world.


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