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Capitalism · Cold War
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Historical materialism
Marxist philosophy
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Karl Marx · Friedrich Engels
Vladimir Lenin · Leon Trotsky
Rosa Luxemburg · Anton Pannekoek
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Communism Portal

Communism is an ideology that seeks to establish a classless, stateless social organization, based upon common ownership of the means of production. It can be classified as a branch of the broader socialist movement. Early forms of human social organization have been described as ' primitive communism' by Marxists. However, communism as a political goal generally is a conjectured form of future social organization. There is a considerable variety of views among self-identified communists, including Maoism, Trotskyism, council communism, Luxemburgism, anarchist communism, Christian communism, and various currents of left communism, which are generally the more widespread varieties. However, various offshoots of the Soviet (what critics call the ' Stalinist') and Maoist interpretations of Marxism-Leninism comprise a particular branch of communism that has the distinction of having been the primary driving force for communism in world politics during most of the 20th century. The competing branch of Trotskyism has not had such a distinction.

Karl Marx held that society could not be transformed from the capitalist mode of production to the communist mode of production all at once, but required a transitional period which Marx described as the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. The communist society Marx envisioned emerging from capitalism has never been implemented, and it remains theoretical; Marx, in fact, commented very little on what communist society would actually look like. However, the term 'Communism', especially when it is capitalized, is often used to refer to the political and economic regimes under communist parties that claimed to embody the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the late 19th century, Marxist theories motivated socialist parties across Europe, although their policies later developed along the lines of "reforming" capitalism, rather than overthrowing it. The exception was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. One branch of this party, commonly known as the Bolsheviks and headed by Vladimir Lenin, succeeded in taking control of the country after the toppling of the Provisional Government in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1918, this party changed its name to the Communist Party, thus establishing the contemporary distinction between communism and other trends of socialism.

After the success of the October Revolution in Russia, many socialist parties in other countries became communist parties, signaling varying degrees of allegiance to the new Communist Party of the Soviet Union. After World War II, Communists consolidated power in Eastern Europe, and in 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China, which would later follow its own unique ideological path of communist development. Among the other countries in the Third World that adopted a pro-communist government at some point were Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, Laos, Angola, and Mozambique. By the early 1980s almost one-third of the world's population lived in Communist states.

Since the early 1970s, the term " Eurocommunism" was used to refer to the policies of communist parties in western Europe, which sought to break with the tradition of uncritical and unconditional support of the Soviet Union. Such parties were politically active and electorally significant in France and Italy.

There is a history of anti-communism in the United States, which manifested itself in the Sedition Act of 1918 and in the subsequent Palmer Raids, for example, as well as in the later period of McCarthyism. However, many regions of South America and Central America continue to have strong communist movements of various types.

With the decline of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s and the breakup of the Soviet Union on December 8, 1991, communism's influence has decreased dramatically in Europe. However, around a quarter of the world's population still lives in Communist states, mostly in the People's Republic of China.

Early communism

Karl Marx saw primitive communism as the original hunter-gatherer state of mankind from which it arose. For Marx, only after humanity was capable of producing surplus, did private property develop.

In Western the history of Western thought, the idea of a society based on common ownership of property can be traced back to ancient times. In his 4th century BCE The Republic, Plato considers the idea of the ruling class sharing property. In the republic, the ruling or guardian classes are committed to an austere and communistic way of life, with the aim of devoting all of their time and efforts to public service.

At one time or another, various small communist communities existed, generally under the inspiration of Scripture. In the medieval Christian church, for example, some monastic communities and religious orders shared their land and other property. (See Christian communism) These groups often believed that concern with private property was a distraction from religious service to God and neighbour. (Encarta)

Communist thought has also been traced back to the work of 16th century English writer Thomas More. In his treatise Utopia (1516), More portrayed a society based on common ownership of property, whose rulers administered it through the application of reason. (Encarta) In the 17th century, communist thought arguably surfaced again in England. In 17th-century England, the Diggers, a Puritan religious group known as advocated the abolition of private ownership of land. (Encarta) Eduard Bernstein, in his 1895 Cromwell and Communism argued that several groupings in the English Civil War, especially the Diggers espoused clear communistic, agrarian ideals, and that Oliver Cromwell's attitude to these groups was at best ambivalent and often hostile.

Criticism of the idea of private property continued into the Enlightenment of the 18th century, through such thinkers as Jean Jacques Rousseau in France. (Encarta) Later, following the upheaval of the French Revolution, communism emerged as a political doctrine. François Noël Babeuf, in particular, espoused the goals of common ownership of land and total economic and political equality among citizens. (Encarta)

Various social reformers in the early 19th century founded communities based on common ownership. But unlike many previous communist communities, they replaced the religious emphasis with a rational and philanthropic basis. (EB) Notable among them were Robert Owen, who founded New Harmony in Indiana (1825), and Charles Fourier, whose followers organized other settlements in the United States such as Brook Farm (1841–47). (EB) Later in the 19th century, Karl Marx described these social reformers as " utopian socialists" to contrast them with his program of " scientific socialism" (a term coined by Friedrich Engels). Other writers described by Marx as "utopian socialists" included Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon.

In its modern form, communism grew out of the socialist movement of 19th-century Europe. (Encarta) As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for the misery of the proletariat—a new class of poor, urban factory workers who labored under often-hazardous conditions. (EB) Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels. (EB) In 1848 Marx and Engels offered a new definition of communism and popularized the term in their famous pamphlet The Communist Manifesto. (EB) Engels, who lived in Manchester, observed the organization of the Chartist movement (see History of British socialism), while Marx departed from his university comrades to meet the proletariat in France and Germany.

The emergence of modern communism


Karl Marx
Karl Marx

Like other socialists, Marx and Engels sought an end to capitalism and the systems which they perceived to be responsible for the exploitation of workers. But whereas earlier socialists often favored longer-term social reform, Marx and Engels believed that popular revolution was all but inevitable, and the only path to socialism.

According to the Marxist argument for communism, the main characteristic of human life in class society is alienation; and communism is desirable because it entails the full realization of human freedom. Marx here follows Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in conceiving freedom not merely as an absence of restraints but as action with content. (McLean and McMillan, 2003) They believed that communism allowed people to do what they want but also put humans in such conditions and such relations with one another that they would not wish to have any need for exploitation. Whereas for Hegel the unfolding of this ethical life in history is mainly driven by the realm of ideas, for Marx, communism emerged from material forces, particularly the development of the means of production. (McLean and McMillan, 2003)

Marxism holds that a process of class conflict and revolutionary struggle will result in victory for the proletariat and the establishment of a communist society in which private ownership is abolished over time and the means of production and subsistence belong to the community. Marx himself wrote little about life under communism, giving only the most general indication as to what constituted a communist society. It is clear that it entails abundance in which there is little limit to the projects that humans may undertake. In the popular slogan that was adopted by the communist movement, communism was a world in which each gave according to their abilities, and received according to their needs.' The German Ideology (1845) was one of Marx's few writings to elaborate on the communist future:

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

Marx's lasting vision was to add this vision to a positive scientific theory of how society was moving in a law-governed way toward communism, and, with some tension, a political theory that explained why revolutionary activity was required to bring it about. (McLean and McMillan, 2003)

In the late 19th century the terms "socialism" and "communism" were often used interchangeably. (Encarta) However, Marx and Engels argued that communism would not emerge from capitalism in a fully developed state, but would pass through a "first phase" in which most productive property was owned in common, but with some class differences remaining. The "first phase" would eventually give way to a "higher phase" in which class differences were eliminated, and a state was no longer needed. Lenin frequently used the term "socialism" to refer to Marx and Engels' supposed "first phase" of communism and used the term "communism" interchangeably with Marx and Engels' "higher phase" of communism.

These later aspects, particularly as developed by Lenin, provided the underpinning for the mobilizing features of 20th century Communist parties. Later writers such as Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas modified Marx's vision by allotting a central place to the state in the development of such societies, by arguing for a prolonged transition period of socialism prior to the attainment of full communism.

Other currents

Some of Marx's contemporaries espoused similar ideas, but differed in their views of how to reach to a classless society. Following the split between those associated with Marx and Mikhail Bakunin at the First International, the anarchists formed the International Workers Association. Anarchists argued that capitalism and the state were inseparable and that one could not be abolished without the other. Anarchist-communists such as Peter Kropotkin theorized an immediate transition to one society with no classes. Anarcho-syndicalism became one of the dominant forms of anarchist organization, arguing that labor unions, as opposed to Communist parties, are the organizations that can change society. Consequently, many anarchists have been in opposition to Marxist communism to this day.

In the late 19th century Russian Marxism developed a distinct character. The first major figure of Russian Marxism was Georgi Plekhanov. Underlying the work of Plekhanov was the assumption that Russia, less urbanized and industrialized than Western Europe, had many years to go before society would be ready for proletarian revolution could occur, and a transitional period of a bourgeois democratic regime would be required to replace Tsarism with a socialist and later communist society. (EB)

The growth of modern Communism

Vladimir Lenin following his return to Petrograd
Vladimir Lenin following his return to Petrograd

In Russia, the 1917 October Revolution was the first time any party with an avowedly Marxist orientation, in this case the Bolshevik Party, seized state power. The assumption of state power by the Bolsheviks generated a great deal of practical and theoretical debate within the Marxist movement. Marx believed that socialism and communism would be built upon foundations laid by the most advanced capitalist development. Russia, however, was one of the poorest countries in Europe with an enormous, largely illiterate peasantry and a minority of industrial workers. It should be noted, however, that Marx had explicitly stated that Russia might be able to skip the stage of bourgeois capitalism. Other socialists also believed that a Russian revolution could be the precursor of workers' revolutions in the West.

The moderate socialist Mensheviks opposed Lenin's communist Bolsheviks' plan for socialist revolution before capitalism was more fully developed. The Bolsheviks successful rise to power was based upon the slogans "peace, bread, and land" and "All power to the Soviets," slogans which tapped the massive public desire for an end to Russian involvement in the First World War, the peasants' demand for land reform, and popular support for the Soviets.

The usage of the terms "communism" and "socialism" shifted after 1917, when the Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies under Leninism. The Second International had dissolved in 1916 over national divisions, as the separate national parties that composed it did not maintain a unified front against the war, instead generally supporting their respective nation's role. Lenin thus created the Third International (Comintern) in 1919 and sent the Twenty-one Conditions, which included democratic centralism, to all European socialist parties willing to adhere. In France, for example, the majority of the SFIO socialist party split in 1921 to form the SFIC (French Section of the Communist International). Henceforth, the term "Communism" was applied to the objective of the parties founded under the umbrella of the Comintern. Their program called for the uniting of workers of the world for revolution, which would be followed by the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat as well as the development of a socialist economy. Ultimately, if their program held, there would develop a harmonious classless society, with the withering away of the state.

During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922), the Bolsheviks nationalized all productive property and imposed a policy of " war communism," which put factories and railroads under strict government control, collected and rationed food, and introduced some bourgeois management of industry. After three years of war and the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, Lenin declared the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, which was to give a "limited place for a limited time to capitalism." The NEP lasted until 1928, when Joseph Stalin's personal fight for leadership, and the introduction of the first Five Year Plan spelled the end of it. Following the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks formed in 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, from the former Russian Empire.

Following Lenin's democratic centralism, the Communist parties were organized on a hierarchical basis, with active cells of members as the broad base; they were made up only of elite cadres approved by higher members of the party as being reliable and completely subject to party discipline.

The Soviet Union and other countries ruled by Communist Parties are often described as ' Communist states' with ' state socialist' economic bases. (Scott and Marshall, 2005) This usage indicates that they proclaim that they have realized part of the socialist program by abolishing private control of the means of production and establishing state control over the economy; however, they do not declare themselves truly communist, as they have not established communal ownership of property.

In the United States, anarchist communists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were key figures on the left in the first two decades of the 20th Century and were the target of early anti-communist repression, such as the Palmer Raids, which led to their deportation. (Marshall, p. 500) Anarchist communism also played a major role in the Ukraine during the period following the Russian Revolution of 1917, establishing the Free Territory that was destroyed by the Red Army in 1920. (Ibid, ch. 30) However, anarchist movements retained their strength elsewhere in Europe. The Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, for example, became one of the largest anarcho-syndicalist organisations in the world and played a major role in the revolutionary period of 1930s Spain and in the Spanish Civil War. (Ibid, ch. 29)


The Stalinist version of socialism, with some important modifications, shaped the Soviet Union and influenced Communist Parties worldwide. It was heralded as a possibility of building communism via a massive program of industrialization and collectivization. The rapid development of industry, and above all the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, maintained that vision throughout the world, even around a decade following Stalin's death, when the party adopted a program in which it promised the establishment of communism within thirty years.

However, under Stalin's leadership, evidence emerged that dented faith in the possibility of achieving communism within the framework of the Soviet model. Stalin had created in the Soviet Union a repressive state that dominated every aspect of life. Later, growth declined, and rent-seeking and corruption by state officials increased, which dented the legitimacy of the Soviet system.

Despite the activity of the Comintern, the Soviet Communist Party adopted the Stalinist theory of " socialism in one country" and claimed that, due to the " aggravation of class struggle under socialism," it was possible, even necessary, to build socialism in one country alone. This departure from Marxist internationalism was challenged by Leon Trotsky, whose theory of " permanent revolution" stressed the necessity of world revolution.


Trotsky and his supporters organized into the " Left Opposition," and their platform became known as Trotskyism. But Stalin eventually succeeded in gaining full control of the Soviet regime, and their attempts to remove Stalin from power resulted in Trotsky's exile from the Soviet Union in 1929. After Trotsky's exile, world communism fractured into two distinct branches: Stalinism and Trotskyism. Trotsky later founded the Fourth International, a Trotskyist rival to the Comintern, in 1938.

Trotskyist ideas have continually found a modest echo among political movements in Latin America and Asia, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and The Philippines. Many Trotskyist organisations are also active in more stable, developed countries in North America and Western Europe.

However, as a whole, Trotsky's theories and attitudes were never reaccepted in worldwide mainstream Communist circles after Trotsky's expulsion, either within or outside of the Soviet bloc. This remained the case even after the Secret Speech and subsequent events exposed the fallibility of Stalinism and Maoism. Today, even given the fact that there are areas of the world where Trotskyist movements are rather large, Trotskyist movements have never coalesced in a mass movement that has seized state power.


After the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union's new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin's crimes and his cult of personality. He called for a return to the principles of Lenin, thus presaging some change in Communist methods. However, Khrushchev's reforms heightened ideological differences between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, which became increasingly apparent in the 1960s. As the Sino-Soviet Split in the international Communist movement turned toward open hostility, China portrayed itself as a leader of the underdeveloped world against the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Parties and groups that supported the Communist Party of China (CPC) in their criticism against the new Soviet leadership proclaimed themselves as 'anti-revisionist' and denounced the CPSU and the parties aligned with it as revisionist "capitalist-roaders." The Sino-Soviet Split resulted in divisions amongst communist parties around the world. Notably, the Party of Labour of Albania sided with the People's Republic of China. Effectively, the CPC under Mao's leadership became the rallying forces of a parallel international Communist tendency. The ideology of CPC, Mao Zedong Thought (generally referred to as 'Maoism'), was adopted by many of these groups.

After the death of Mao and the takeover of Deng Xiaoping, the international Maoist movement fell in disarray. One sector accepted the new leadership in China, a second renounced the new leadership and reaffirmed their commitment to Mao's legacy, and a third renounced Maoism altogether and aligned with the Albanian Party of Labour.

Other anti-revisionist currents

After the ideological row between the Communist Party of China and the Party of Labour of Albania in 1978, the Albanians rallied a new separate international tendency. This tendency would demarcate itself by a strict defense of the legacy of Joseph Stalin and fierce criticism of virtually all other Communist groupings. The Albanians were able to win over a large share of the Maoists in Latin America, most notably the Communist Party of Brazil. This tendency has occasionally been labeled as 'Hoxhaism' after the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha.

After the fall of the Communist government in Albania, the pro-Albanian parties are grouped around an international conference and the publication 'Unity and Struggle'. Another important institution for them is the biannual International Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Fascist Youth Camp, which was initiated in 1970s.

Under the leadership of Hardial Bains, general secretary of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) a small current emerged in the 1970s of Marxist-Leninist groups in several countries. This tendency aligned with Albania politically, but remained somewhat separate from the main pro-Albanian camp.

Cold War years

By virtue of the Soviet Union's victory in the Second World War in 1945, the Soviet Army had occupied nations in both Eastern Europe and East Asia; as a result, communism as a movement spread to many new countries. This expansion of communism both in Europe and Asia gave rise to a few different branches of its own, such as Maoism.

Communism had been vastly strengthened by the winning of many new nations into the sphere of Soviet influence and strength in Eastern Europe. Governments modeled on Soviet Communism took power with Soviet assistance in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania. A Communist government was also created under Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, but Tito's independent policies led to the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform, which had replaced the Comintern. Titoism, a new branch in the world communist movement, was labeled " deviationist." Albania also became an independent Communist nation after World War II.

By 1950 the Chinese Communists held all of Mainland China, thus controlling the most populous nation in the world. Other areas where rising Communist strength provoked dissension and in some cases led to actual fighting include the Korean Peninsula, Laos, many nations of the Middle East and Africa, and, especially, Vietnam (see Vietnam War). With varying degrees of success, Communists attempted to unite with nationalist and socialist forces against what they saw as Western imperialism in these poor countries.

Communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and relaxed central control, in accordance with reform policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). The Soviet Union did not intervene as Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary all abandoned Communist rule by 1990. In 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved.

By the beginning of the 21st century, states controlled by Communist parties under a single-party system include the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova is a member of the Communist Party of Moldova, but the country is not run under single-party rule. Communist parties, or their descendant parties, remain politically important in many European countries and throughout the Third World, particularly in India.

The People's Republic of China has reassessed many aspects of the Maoist legacy; and the People's Republic of China, Laos, Vietnam, and, to a lesser degree, Cuba have reduced state control of the economy in order to stimulate growth. The People's Republic of China runs Special Economic Zones dedicated to market-oriented enterprise, free from central government control. Several other communist states have also attempted to implement market-based reforms, including Vietnam. Officially, the leadership of the People's Republic of China refers to its policies as " Socialism with Chinese characteristics."

Theories within Marxism as to why communism in Eastern Europe was not achieved after socialist revolutions pointed to such elements as the pressure of external capitalist states, the relative backwardness of the societies in which the revolutions occurred, and the emergence of a bureaucratic stratum or class that arrested or diverted the transition press in its own interests. (Scott and Marshall, 2005) Marxist critics of the Soviet Union, most notably Trotsky, referred to the Soviet system, along with other Communist states, as " degenerated" or " deformed workers' states," arguing that the Soviet system fell far short of Marx's communist ideal. Trotskyists argued that the Soviet state was degenerated because the working class was politically dispossessed. The ruling stratum of the Soviet Union was held to be a bureaucratic caste, but not a new ruling class, despite their political control. They called for a political revolution in the USSR and defended the country against capitalist restoration. Others, like Tony Cliff, advocated the theory of state capitalism, which asserts that the bureaucratic elite acted as a surrogate capitalist class in the heavily centralized and repressive political apparatus.

Non-Marxists, in contrast, have often applied the term to any society ruled by a Communist Party and to any party aspiring to create a society similar to such existing nation-states. In the social sciences, societies ruled by Communist Parties are distinct for their single party control and their socialist economic bases. While anticommunists applied the concept of " totalitarianism" to these societies, many social scientists identified possibilities for independent political activity within them, and stressed their continued evolution up to the point of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Today, Marxist revolutionaries are conducting armed insurgencies in India, Nepal, Philippines and Colombia.

Criticism of communism

A diverse array of writers and political activists have published criticism of communism, such as Soviet bloc dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel; social theorists Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Ralf Dahrendorf, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Karl Wittfogel; economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman; historians and social scientists Robert Conquest, Stéphane Courtois, Richard Pipes, and R. J. Rummel; anti-communist leftists Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Saul Alinsky, Richard Wright, Arthur Koestler, and Bernard-Henri Levy; novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand; and philosophers Leszek Kołakowski and Karl Popper. Some writers such as Courtois go beyond attributing the estimated tens of millions of deaths and other large-scale human rights abuses during the 20th century merely to the Communist regimes associated with these atrocities; rather, these authors present the events occurring in these countries, particularly under Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, as an argument against Marxism itself. Some of the critics were former Marxists, such as Wittfogel, who applied Marx's concept of " Oriental despotism" to communist societies such as the Soviet Union, and Silone, Wright, Koestler (among other writers) who contributed essays to the book The God that Failed (the title refers not to the Christian God but Marxism itself).

There have also been more direct criticisms of Marxism, such as criticisms of the labor theory of value or Marx's predictions. Nevertheless, Communist parties outside of the Warsaw Pact, such as the Communist parties in Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, differed greatly. Thus a criticism that is applicable to one such party is not necessarily applicable to another.

Comparing "Communism" to "communism"

According to the 1996 third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, communism and derived words are written with the lowercase "c" except when they refer to a political party of that name, a member of that party, or a government led by such a party, in which case the word "Communist" is written with the uppercase "C." Thus, one may be a communist (an advocate of communism) without being a Communist (a member of a Communist Party or another similar organization).

Suggested readings

  • Forman, James D., "Communism from Marx's Manifesto to 20th-Century Reality", New York, Watts. 1972. ISBN 0-531-02571-3
  • Furet, Francois, Furet, Deborah Kan (Translator), "The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century", University of Chicago Press, 2000, ISBN 0-226-27341-5
  • Daniels, Robert Vincent, "A Documentary History of Communism and the World: From Revolution to Collapse", University Press of New England, 1994, ISBN 0-874-51678-1
  • Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich, "Communist Manifesto", (Mass Market Paperback - REPRINT), Signet Classics, 1998, ISBN 0-451-52710-0
  • Dirlik, Arif, "Origins of Chinese Communism", Oxford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-195-05454-7
  • Beer, Max, "The General History of Socialism and Social Struggles Volumes 1 & 2", New York, Russel and Russel, Inc. 1957

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