Historical Figures

The Four Stages of Communism. Part 2. Marxism and the Modern World

Edward Kanterian, University of Kent, 17. September 2021

Dr. Edward Kanterian is Reader of Philosophy at the University of Kent. In Part 2 of his article, Kanterian outlines the developments of modernity that led to shifts in the communist school of thought, by figures such as Campanella, Morelly, Saint-Simon, Marx, and Engels. He argues that Marx and Engels’ communist philosophy, despite its intellectual prowess, was fantastical and immoral in practice. Kanterian claims that both figures should be held accountable, and even condemned, for their connection to the communist regimes and totalitarian leaders that would proceed to terrorize entire populations in the early 20th century.

Read Part 1 of the article here.

IV. The Third Stage: Communism in the Modern Period

At this point, we have witnessed two of the four main stages of the communist idea. Initially, in antiquity, we encountered backward-looking nostalgia for an egalitarian society, with some very sketchy attempts to translate this into the model of a desirable future society.

Then, with the arrival of Christianity and its condemnation of greed and property, the communistic ideal became much more pronounced. It became something to aspire to in this world, in anticipation of the kingdom of God. However, the doctrine of the fallenness of mankind, which made room for the acceptance of property as a natural desire, prevented a straightforward application of this ideal to human existence on this plane, save for those who felt the need to realise this ideal even in their present life, such as friars.

In the late Middle Ages, a gradual expansion of Christian communism took place, from the small-scale experiments of friars, via Wyclif’s application of these experiments to the whole Church and Hus’s transformation of this into a political weapon, to the apocalyptic and murderous fanatics such as the Taborites. It is remarkable, even disconcerting, how much the extreme fringes of these pre-modern currents provide us with a blueprint for the communist movements of the 19th and especially 20th century.

In order to get from the egalitarian and violence-prone messianism of the Middle Ages to Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot, at least three additional fundamental shifts must be considered — shifts characteristic of modernity. These were (a) secularization, (b) the rise of science, (c) the invention of economics, and (d) the rise of the modern state.

To begin with, the process of secularisation, which took a very long time, included, among other things, “the death of God”, the rejection of the Church as the main authority for spiritual guidance, the denial of the idea of mankind’s fallenness, and the re-classification of humans as mere denizens of this world (cosmos, nature). Secularisation had, as one of its results, a greater focus on the human good in this world, as opposed to the next world. Eradicating human misery here and now, especially in the form of poverty and oppression, and its converse, the realization of human wealth, freedom, and happiness on Earth, were identified as the main targets of moral-political deliberation and action.

Second, the rise of modern science from the 16th century onwards caused a major paradigm shift in human culture in general. By means of careful observation, experimentation, and mathematised theory-building, it became possible to formulate general laws of nature, and to explain and predict the behaviour of physical objects. This could be done, many were tempted to believe, with human beings as well, especially under the secularised and naturalised framework, outlined in (a).

Third, as the workings of human society began to attract the attention of thinkers, its economic aspects came increasingly to the fore, especially from the 17th century onwards. This led to the prospect of formulating economic laws on the model of natural laws, as outlined in (b).

Fourth, as the modern state emerged, first in the form of absolutist monarchies and later as constitutional monarchies, democratic republics, and eventually totalitarian dictatorships, the scope and force of political power increased tenfold, through more efficient administrative apparatuses, economies, and armies. The state could now, depending on who ruled it, wield a huge amount of power over society.

Modern communists incorporated these new developments to various degrees in their school of thought. It is enough to look at three examples, namely Campanella’s, Morelly’s, and Saint Simon’s schools of thought.

Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) was one among several to present, in City of the Sun, the modern fantasy of a communist state, devised in a purely rational, quasi-scientific fashion. In this text, private property does not exist, and its citizens do not desire it either, because their acquisitive instincts have been curbed through education; children are not raised by the family but the state and are educated to love nothing but the state.

Apart from the supreme leader and three subordinates (foreshadowing the Party or Central Committee), there is total equality among the citizens, especially when it comes to work, which everyone must undertake, albeit only for four hours per day. The rest of the day should be filled with studying and entertainment.

Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639): A well-known Italian philosopher from the late Renaissance period. He wrote The City of the Sun, where he suggests that a utopian society should be created in order to rid humanity of injustice and unhappiness. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A century later, the French author Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717–1778) wrote a similar novel, Basiliade, about a communist utopia in which private property, “the mother of all crimes”, is kept away from an island society, together with market competition, trade, exchange, selling, and wage-labour. The result is happiness, freedom, and peace, “in accordance with the eternal laws of the universe”. This quasi-scientific reference to the laws of nature was fleshed out in Morelly’s theoretical work Code de la nature (1755).

Here, he rejected the idea of human fallenness, and argued for economic reductionism, anticipating Marx: morality and politics are just a reflection of the economic setup of society. Abolition and prevention (through education) of private property removes the sole root of human misery. This is a “sacred basic law [...] following the intentions of nature”.

Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717–1778): An obscure French writer and philosopher who is believed to have written Basiliade (1753) and Code de la nature (1755). His work focuses on the design of a utopian society where he argues for the reduction, and even elimination, of private property. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, anyone who attempts to re-introduce private property commits a capital crime. He is to be treated as an enemy of mankind, and “imprisoned in a cave in the public cemetery”, his name “forever erased from the citizens registry”. At this point in Morelly’s vision, the outlines of the Gulag camps already appear on the misty horizon of history.

Many other modern thinkers anticipating in one respect or another, indeed influencing, Marx, Engels, and Lenin could be mentioned here. The Duc de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) was not himself a communist, because he shied away from denouncing private property, even though he did decry the existence of inequality.

Saint-Simon viewed the captains of industry and big business as the driving forces of progress, together with scientists and artists. However, he precisely added this dynamical notion of progress, missing in Morelly’s work, to socialist thought. He too was an economic reductionist. The real forces of history are all economic, manifested in the struggle between social classes. The future of mankind is bright, because the class of rational and creative technocrats will rule the new society very effectively. They will form a central planning body, which individuals will have no right to protest against or disobey.

Saint-Simon’s followers, the “church” of Saint-Simonians, identified the law of “universal association” (an analogy to the law of gravity) as the fundamental law of history, leading to the disappearance of inequality and the exploitation of the worker. One final revolution is required to achieve this noble goal: the abolition of inheritance not private property. When a citizen dies, the possessions he has acquired in his life are transferred to the state, which is simply “an association of workers”.

The Saint-Simonians claimed that this fiscal measure avoids socialism. Tellingly, however, Marx himself proposed the very same measure in The Communist Manifesto (1848). It can be argued, as Alexander Gray has done in his work, that if everyone starts at zero and continually hands over their acquired wealth to the state, most things will be state-owned after a few cycles and state power will become exponentially inflated. The private sector as we know it could cease to exist, because it requires the work of generations and the law of private corporations. The quasi-socialist Leviathan state of the Saint-Simonians adumbrates the omnipotent state’s communism, created in the 20th century. Needless to say, these intellectuals also embraced the old egalitarian myth, but with a characteristic modern inversion: “The age of gold of the human race is not behind us; it lies ahead of us; it consists in the perfection of the social order”.


Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 –1825): An influential French social theorist, who is known for founding the Saint-Simonianism movement and the Christian socialism school of thought. Saint-Simon is seen as a predecessor of both Marx and Engels in the field of utopian socialism. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Thus, we arrive at Marx and Engels. What did these figures add? Little of essence, and a lot of detail. Marx’s most important novelty was his conception of communism as the necessary result of the development of human history. He described this development by means of the theory of dialectical materialism, a sophisticated and no doubt ingenious philosophy of history, underwritten, as in Morelly, Saint Simon and others, by economic reductionism. Focusing on The Communist Manifesto, we can say that Marx’s main claims were as follows.

(a) There are five stages of mankind’s development: the original commune (i.e., no division of labour, no private property, and no exploitation), the slave-master society, feudalism, capitalism, and finally communism (i.e., back to the first stage, but at a “higher” level of rationality). This sequence is of historical necessity, with each stage leading through its internal logic inevitably to the next. A consequence often overlooked is that for Marx, capitalism and exploitation, indeed even colonialism, are necessary pre-conditions for communism (while trade unions and social welfare programs are a hindrance).

(b) The root cause of all social evil was the introduction of the division of labour, because its consequence was that some ended up with menial, low paid work, while others ended up with a lot of property and eventually owned the means of production. This destroyed mankind’s original unity (i.e., Golden Age), leading to the institution of private property, class antagonisms, and class struggles.

(c) To keep these antagonisms at bay, a coercive system was needed (i.e., the state). However, the state only perpetuated class conflicts because it defended their underlying cause, private property. The same would still be true for a bourgeois revolution such as the French Revolution, since it did not abolish the root cause, private property. Therefore, communism and the state are incompatible, for communism means the liberation of mankind, while “the existence of the state and the existence of slavery are inseparable from one another” (as Marx had written in an earlier article from 1844). Since the disappearance of the state is imperative for Marx, it is not true, despite his occasional assurances, that communism is not meant to lead to the abolition of all property, but only of the capitalist ownership of the means of production.

For if there is no state, there is no authority to protect (rights to) personal property either, (e.g., against common criminals). Nonetheless, where there are no rights protected, there are no rights, and, therefore, no property (rights). Hence, true communism, in its final stage, is tantamount to the disappearance of all property.[1] It seems that Marxian communism, given the total absence of property in its final stage, very much resembles the communism used by the Franciscans (minus the spiritual dimension).

(d) What will, therefore, be required is a revolution of the exploited and dehumanized proletariat, who live on minimum wage-labour. They will be forced to carry out this revolution, because according to the economic laws Marx formulated, they are becoming increasingly poorer, which will weaken their purchasing power and eventually the capitalist’s income, who in turn will need to reduce his labour force, thus accelerating the breakdown of the whole system. However, once private property is abolished, especially the means of production (e.g., factories, land, and financial capital), and becomes socialized, all class conflict will end, humans will reconcile with one another, and mankind will enter the golden age of communism.

IV. The Fourth Stage of Communism

It is not necessary to go into the details of Marx’s theory beyond the aforementioned points.[2] What matters in the present context is the trajectory from Marx and Engels to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot — from the high morals of theory to the immorality of its practice. Engels emphasized the scientific character of communist theory and the absolute necessity of its correctness and implementation. He also outlined, in more depth than Marx, the general features of the coming society. In the Principles of Communism (1847) Engels wrote:

“Society will take all forces of production and means of commerce, as well as the exchange and distribution of products, out of the hands of private capitalists and will manage them in accordance with a plan based on the availability of resources and the needs of the whole society. In this way, most important of all, the evil consequences which are now associated with the conduct of big industry will be abolished. There will be no more crises; the expanded production, which for the present order of society is overproduction and hence a prevailing cause of misery, will then be insufficient and in need of being expanded much further.

Instead of generating misery, overproduction will reach beyond the elementary requirements of society to assure the satisfaction of the needs of all; it will create new needs and, at the same time, the means of satisfying them. [...] In this way, such an abundance of goods will be able to satisfy the needs of all its members. The division of society into different, mutually hostile classes will then become unnecessary. Indeed, it will be not only unnecessary but intolerable in the new social order. The existence of classes originated in the division of labour, and the division of labour, as it has been known up to the present, will completely disappear”.

We already have here the wooden language of communist party officials, as it resounded in many countries throughout Europe in the latter half of the 20th century. However, Engels described a complete fantasy, as none of his predictions materialised. To the contrary: by a bewildering paradox, precisely the attempt to abolish mankind’s alleged greatest evils (e.g., private property, the state, and thus all societal oppression), led to the establishment of a state containing the highest degree of oppression, a true and at times murderous Leviathan.

The attempt to apply the communist myth of the Golden Age, in its modernised version, to entire societies led to the forced labour camps of the Gulag, initiated by Lenin immediately after he came to power in 1917. It led to the unspeakable crimes of Stalin’s Great Terror (1937–1938), whose main victims (up to 750,000), were not the “bourgeois” and “capitalists”, but the most impoverished classes of Soviet society — the most powerless, marginalised, and hopeless people (e.g., workers and peasants who had lost everything through forced collectivisation earlier in the decade).

In other words, the state carried out the mass murder of a proletariat that was created by a regime that meant to liberate the proletariat. Communism also led to the murderous campaigns of Mao, with victims in the tens of millions, to the killing fields of Pol Pot, and to the tyrannical rule of all the other communist leaders throughout the world. Estimates of the human toll of communism in the 20th century reach up to a staggering 100 million victims, according to The Black Book of Communism edited by Stéphane Courtois in 1997.

For those who have forgotten the nature of communist rule, or who prefer to look away, here are two descriptions by witnesses, of how human beings were treated in the Soviet Gulag:

“In the final stages of starvation, the dokhodyagi took on a bizarre and inhuman appearance, becoming the physical fulfilment of the dehumanizing rhetoric used by the state: in their dying days, enemies of the people ceased, in other words, to be people at all. They became demented, often ranting and raving for hours. Their skin was loose and dry. Their eyes had a strange gleam. They ate anything they could get their hands on —birds, dogs, garbage. They moved slowly, and could not control their bowels or their bladders, as a result of which they emitted a terrible odour. Tamara Petkevich describes the first time she saw them: “There behind the barbed wire was a row of creatures, distantly reminiscent of human beings…there were ten of them, skeletons of various sizes covered with brown, parchment-like skin, all stripped to the waist, with shaved heads and pendulous withered breasts. Their only clothing was some pathetic dirty underpants, and their shinbones projected from concave circles of emptiness. Women! Hunger, heat and hard toil had transformed them into dired specimens that still, unaccountably, clung to the last vestiges of life”. 

“At the end of the workday there were corpses left on the work site. The snow powdered their faces. One of them was hunched over beneath an overturned wheelbarrow, he had hidden his hands in his sleeves and frozen to death in that position. Someone had frozen with his head bent down between his knees. Two were frozen back-to-back leaning against each other. They were peasant lads and the best workers one could possibly imagine.

They were sent to the canal in tens of thousands at a time, and the authorities tried to work things out, so no one got to the same subcamp as his father; they tried to break up families. And right off they gave them norms of shingle and boulders that you’d be unable to fulfill even in summer. No one was able to teach them anything, to warn them; and in their village simplicity they gave all their strength to their work and weakened very swiftly and then froze to death, embracing in pairs. At night the sledges went out and collected them.

The drivers threw the corpses onto the sledges with a dull clonk. And in the summer bones remained from corpses which had not been removed in time, and together with the shingle they got into the concrete mixer. And in this way, they got into the concrete of the last lock at the city of Belomorsk and will be preserved there forever”.

These passages are from Anne Applebaum’s book, Gulag. A History (2003) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago (1973).

It has become commonplace to absolve Marx and Engels of these crimes. One cannot reasonably object to this because they were obviously not involved in any communist regimes. However, another commonplace belief is more problematic — the idea that Marxist theory has no relation to the way in which it was applied in practice, and that the failings of the latter are entirely due to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc., and leaders who came to power “by accident”.

If this were the case, Marx’s theory of history would be invalidated, either because it would have to be treated as irrefutable in principle, and thus not a theory with empirical and normative content, or because 20th century communism failed to bring about the predicted utopia and is clear counterevidence to the theory[3].

Here it suffices to point out that the language of violence, so strident in Lenin’s writings and in line with his policies, such as the mass execution of the “kulaks” in 1918, following the so-called “Hanging Order”, has its first seeds in Marx and Engels. In fact, several of the first-step measures Marx recommends in The Communist Manifesto are manifestly coercive, e.g., the introduction of a strong progressive tax, the abolition of inheritance, and the confiscation of all possessions of immigrants and “rebels”. However, the most obviously coercive measure is Marx’s 8th point: “Gleicher Arbeitszwang für alle, Errichtung industrieller Armeen, besonders für den Ackerbau” [English: Equal compulsory labour for all, creation of industrial armies, especially for agriculture]. In other words, the founder of communism already called for the forced labour battalions so characteristic of Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism.

Engels proposes the same measure in the Principles of Communism (Point 5, Question 18). He specifies, however, that universal forced labour is only required till private property is completely abolished. Then again, private property was never fully abolished in communism, not only because the party elite lived the life of the super-rich, but also because the mark of the complete abolition of private property would have been the arrival of the utopia, which never happened. Hence, there was a perpetual need for forced labour in communism.

There is, however, something more sinister in Engels’ text. One can witness the militaristic tone of the following passage:

“The general association of all members of society for the purpose of planned exploitation of the forces of production, the expansion of production to the point where it will satisfy the needs of all, the abolition of a situation in which the needs of some are satisfied at the expense of the needs of others, the complete liquidation of classes and their conflicts, the rounded development of the capacities of all members of society through the elimination of the present division of labour, through industrial education, through engaging in varying activities, through the participation by all in the enjoyments produced by all”.

One may wonder how all these vast processes of transformation are supposed to be carried out, and by whom? Engels’ and Marx’s answer is by everyone and freely so. Marx explains the specific notion of association: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

This sounds like the language of liberty, not of totalitarianism. However, one must look more closely at Engels’ text. The free development of each person is the condition for the free development of everyone. How does each person develop freely? He or she develops freely if he or she develops in such a way that his or her behaviour enables the free development of everyone else, i.e., of society. Yet the free development of society is what communism is — the marks of which are the complete absence of private property, the division of labour, etc.

To see how remote this is from individual liberty (the freedom of liberalism), and to see what a huge burden is placed on the individual, one just needs to realise that this chain of reasoning can be reversed. If we are supposed to be in a communist society but are not there yet, then this must be because the free development of all is not yet taking place. This means that there must be at least some individuals whose development is not satisfying the requirements for the free development of society.

Therefore, these individuals are a hindrance to the arrival of communism because they are individuals who are not truly “free”. What is to be done with these individuals? What if they, either by mistake, greed, or even deliberate dissent against communist ideology, work against the arrival of communism, thus perpetuating private property and class divisions? What does a state do with such recalcitrant individuals, who are a stumbling block in the march of history? Engels states: “The division of society into different, mutually hostile classes will then become unnecessary.

Indeed, it will be not only unnecessary but intolerable/incompatible [unverträglich] in the new social order”. Such individuals will then need to be made “compatible” again. Engels does not recommend their destruction or lifelong incarceration in Morelly’s cave, but only their “industrial education”. Even so, what if such an education does not achieve its purpose? Human beings are unruly creatures and are not always rational and obedient (as the current pandemic demonstrates). Presumably more education will be required, and eventually maybe other measures. These were not outlined by Marx and Engels, but they were by their successors.

“Shoot these rabid dogs. Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Let’s put these liars out of harm’s way, these miserable pygmies who dance around rotting carcasses! Down with these abject animals! Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let’s exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to tear to pieces the flower of our new Soviet nation! Let’s push the bestial hatred they bear our leaders back down their own throats!” (Andrei Vyshinsky, State Prosecutor during the Great Trials 1936-1938).

From its limited and visionary beginnings in the ancient world, to its small-scale application in ethically tight-knit and at times violent communities in the Middle Ages, to its scientistic reformulation in modern times, and its eventual oppressive application to entire societies in the 20th century, the history of the communist idea is the history of a tragedy. But then again, so might be the entire history of our species. Just because the communists have failed terribly, does not mean one should think that he or she has been left in safe hands after their demise. Diabolus multas uias habet.

Edward Kanterian is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. His research interests include metaphysics, the philosophy of logic and language, and modern philosophy.


[1] Criminals will always exist according to the anarchical law of the jungle. Marx is to be properly classified as an anarchist, as Hans Kelsen has done in The Political Theory of Bolshevism (1949).

[2] Those who are interested, can consult Leszek Kołakowski’s book the Main Currents of Marxism. To this day, it is arguably the best exposition and discussion of Marx’s ideas.

[3] I have discussed this issue in more detail at https://balticworlds.com/communism./

Some recommended reading

Anne Applebaum, Gulag. A History, 2004

Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality, 1996

David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans. From Protest to Persecution in the Century after Saint Francis, 2001

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium. Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, 1970

Stephane Courtois (ed.), The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, 1999

Doyne Dawson, Cities of God. Communist Utopias in Greek Thought, 1992

Friedrich Engels, Principles of Communism, 1847

Clarke Garrett, Respectable Folly. Millenarians and the French Revolution in France and England, 2019

Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition Moses to Lenin, 1946

Hans Kelsen, The Political Theory of Bolshevism. A Critical Analysis, 1949

Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing, 1954

Leszek Kołakowski, Is God Happy?, 2012

Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, 2005

Arnold Künzli, Mein und Dein. Zur Ideengeschichte der Eigentumsfeindschaft, 1986

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

Richard Pipes, Communism: A History, 2003

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, 2018

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights. Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625, 1997

Aleksander Wat, My Century, 1003

Nicolas Werth, Le cimetière d’espoir, 2019