Q: I can’t seem to really understand Marx’s ideas on communism and what it is. To me it sounds like he is trying to say the working class should overthrow the factory owners (“bourgeoisie”), and rule nations themselves. But that would be utter chaos. So what do his ideas suggest?

A: You’re not the only one who has been confused about this! The major reason is that both Marx and Engels concentrated much more on analyzing what was wrong with capitalism and capitalist economics, and spent less time proposing specifics about socialism and communism.

Their ideas for socialism revolve around fixing some of the major problems with capitalism — the exploitation of workers for private profit, the “anarchy” of production which leads to the phenomenon capitalist economists like to euphemistically call “the business cycle,” the dominance of money in politics, and the lack of democracy in economic decisions.

Marx wrote about the 1871 Paris Commune as a real attempt by workers to develop a more direct democracy of the masses, which was drowned in blood. The development of forms of self-rule like workers’ councils, and of mass political engagement all pointed, for Marx, to the direction he saw socialism taking.

Lenin spent much more of his time and writing talking about socialism, because for him it became a much more practical issue. At first, the Russian Revolution produced structures and institutions that looked very similar to what happened during the Paris Commune — workers, peasants and soldiers taking political power into their hands through direct elections to councils, mass involvement in governing, and tapping the mass political ferment to transform society.

As a result of the civil war started by former officers, nobility and capitalists, and the invasion by 14 countries, including the United States, the Soviet government became more highly centralized, and began to rely more on developing military power. There were many other problems, specific to the time, place and history, which set back the development of socialism there and in eastern Europe.

The socialism envisioned by Marx suggests new forms of really representative government, institutions that administer the economy in the interests of the vast majority rather than the tiny minority, a planned approach to economic growth, state control of “the commanding heights” of the economy, and the use of the surplus value created by workers to fund social programs.

Communism is a more advanced stage that comes after socialism. A stage of development never reached anywhere yet, communism would reduce the state apparatus to minimal administrative functions.

We see communism becoming possible when production of the necessities of life has become plentiful and there are no longer shortages of food, housing, jobs, health care and education, when society provides people, directly and indirectly, with the full benefits of the labor they engage in, and people are educated, activated and empowered. Then governments can “wither away” to administrative agencies rather than instruments of coercive control on behalf of exploiting classes through armies, police forces, court systems and tax agencies.

We invite readers to submit questions about the Communist Party USA, its basic policies, and a Marxist viewpoint on current social issues. The answers are provided by Marc Brodine, chair of the Washington State Communist Party. Questions can be sent to cpusa@cpusa.org.