Since its start a century ago, Communism, a political and economic ideology that calls for a classless society in which everything is shared equally, has seen a series of surges—and declines. What started in 1917 Russia, became a global revolution, taking root in countries as far-flung as China and Korea to Sudan, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Communism launched from Lenin’s October Revolution and spread to China with Mao Zedong’s rise to power and to Cuba, with Fidel Castro’s takeover. It was the ideology behind one side of the Cold War and saw a symbolic decline with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today just a handful of countries remain under communist rule. Below is a timeline of notable events that shaped Communism’s arc in history.
Soviet Union Emerges From October Revolution
• February 21, 1848: German economist and philosopher Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels publish The Communist Manifesto, calling for a working-class revolt against capitalism. Its motto, “Workers of the world, unite!” quickly became a rallying cry.
• November 7, 1917: With Vladimir Lenin at the helm, the Bolsheviks, ascribing to Marxism, seize power during Russia’s October Revolution and become the first communist government. Later that month, the leftist Socialist Revolutionaries defeat the Bolsheviks in an election, but, despite his promises of “bread, land and peace,” Lenin uses military force to take power. It’s during this period the Red Terror (executions of the Czar’s officials), prisoner-of-war labor camps and other police state tactics are established.
Communism Takes Hold in China and Beyond
• July 1, 1921: Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party of China is formed.
• January 21, 1924: Lenin dies at age 54 of a stroke, and Joseph Stalin, who had served as Lenin’s general secretary, eventually takes over official rule of the Soviet Union until his death in 1953 from a brain hemorrhage. He industrialized the country through a state-controlled economy, but it led to famine. Under his regime, detractors were deported or imprisoned in labor camps, and, as part of the Great Purge, 1 million people were executed under Stalin’s orders.
• 1940 to 1979: Communism is established by force or otherwise in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland, North Korea, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, China, Tibet, North Vietnam, Guinea, Cuba, Yemen, Sudan, Congo, Burma, Angola, Benin, Cape Verde, Laos, Kampuchea, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Vietnam, Somalia, Seychelles, Afghanistan, Grenada, Nicaragua and others.
Cold War Begins
• May 9, 1945: The U.S.S.R. declares victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. With Japan’s defeat, Korea becomes divided into the communist North (which the Soviets occupied) and the South (which had been occupied by the United States).
• March 12, 1947: President Harry S. Truman addresses Congress in what would come to be known as the Truman Doctrine, calling for the containment of communism, and later, leading to U.S. entry into wars in Vietnam and Korea to provide defense from communist takeovers. The doctrine becomes the basis for America’s Cold War policy.
• March 5, 1946: Great Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill makes his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri, alerting Americans to the division between the Soviet Union and the Western allies.
• October 1, 1949: Following a civil war, China’s Communist Party leader, Mao Zedong declares his creation of the People’s Republic of China, leading the United States to end diplomatic ties with the PRC for decades.
• July 5, 1950: Leading United Nations forces, the first U.S. troops engage in the Korean War, after communist North Korea invaded South Korea with the intent of creating a unified communist state. The war would last until July 27, 1953, with North Korea, China and the United Nations signing an armistice agreement.
Communists Win in Cuba, Vietnam
• January 1, 1959: Fidel Castro overthrows the corrupt Fulgencio Batista regime, and Cuba becomes a Communist state.
• April 25, 1975: Following the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam’s capital is seized by communist forces. A few months later, in July, the nation is reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under communist rule.
• October 25, 1983: The United States invades Grenada under orders of President Ronald Reagan to secure the safety of American nationals under the country’s communist regime, led by Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. The pro-Marxist government was overthrown in about a week.
• June 4, 1989: After weeks of protests, the Communist Chinese government sends in its military to fire on demonstrators calling for democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The bloody violence ends in hundreds to thousands of deaths (no official death toll was ever released).
Berlin Wall Falls, Soviet Union Dissolves
• November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall—that separated communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin for nearly 30 years—falls. The years 1989-90 see the collapse of communist regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Benin, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Yemen.
• December 25, 1991: With the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union is dissolved. New Russian President Boris Yeltsin bans the Communist Party. Communism soon ends in Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Congo, Yugoslavia and other nations. China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam remain under communist rule. North Korea remains nominally communist, although the North Korean government doesn't call itself communist.
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“Communism: Karl Marx to Joseph Stalin,” Center for European Studies, University of North Carolina
“From Tsar to U.S.S.R.: Russia’s Chaotic Year of Revolution,” National Geographic
“The Truman Doctrine, 1947,” U.S. Department of State
“The Chinese Revolution of 1949,” U.S. Department of State
“The Korean War: Timeline," CBS News
“Tiananmen Square Fast Facts," CNN
“United States Invades Grenada,” Politco