It is easy to see how this idea got started: some of the early
radicals in the First International were indeed participants in
secret conspiratorial movements, and in the Stalinist era the
Soviet government routinely tried to recruit Communist Party members
abroad to commit espionage. Now that the archives in Russia have
been opened this effort is well documented. In addition, when
Communist organizations were banned or suppressed, they naturally
retreated underground, just as other persecuted groups like the
early Christians have done. But to characterize Communism generally
as a secret conspiracy is absurd.
First, it is important to note that Karl Marx fought against the
mostly anarchist-dominated factions of the First International
which advocated secrecy and terrorism on the very sensible ground
that a successful revolution would need the backing of the majority
of the population, and that such support could be generated only
by widespread public understanding of the Communist program. The
Manifesto was published precisely to encourage such public
understanding and begins by mocking the stereotype--already in
place in 1848--of Communism as a dark underground plot. Marx spent
most of his life trying to explain Communism in many books and
If anyone is responsible for the general public ignorance about
Communist goals and ideas it is the capitalist press, which carefully
avoided publicizing them. Reams of paper were spent routinely
on denouncing the ideas of leftists and detailing their actions
or threats, but almost never were their writings or speeches reproduced
or seriously discussed. Theodore Kaczynski ("The Unabomber")
had more success using blackmail to get his ideas before the public
than did anyone from the American Communist Party in its most
The goal of Communists has always been to generate mass movements
leading to popular revolution involving the overwhelming majority
of the population. The idea that we might wake up tomorrow ruled
by fierce Marxists who had seized power in a coup was as loony
as current right-wing fantasies about U.N. black helicopters taking
over the country.
However, if we nuance this misconception a bit, more than a little
truth emerges from it. Although the Communists led by Lenin were
not secretive about their aims, they did successfully take over
the 1917 revolution whose combatants mostly did not agree with
their ideas. Although Lenin's group called itself the Bolsheviks
(majority), they in fact constituted a very small minority within
the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party. Their determination
to be the leaders of the new state, their strict organizational
principles, and their conviction that they could realize the the
unspoken will of the masses as "the vanguard of the proletariat"
led them to justify monopolizing power, suppressing all rivals,
most of whom were eventually exiled or executed. They did have
popular support, especially among workers and soldiers in the
cities; but it is not at all clear that their philosophy was clearly
understood or accepted by the Russian people generally.
Another notable instance of a revolution turning Communist was
the uprising led by Fidel Castro (1956-1959) in which he did not
proclaim his beliefs until after he had come to power.
In both cases, popular support for the Communist leadership was
eventually generated by a combination of education, agitation,
national pride, censorship, oppression, and the exile or execution
of opponents. When Communist leaders have generated genuine widespread
popular support (Mao in China, Stalin in World War II Russia),
it was generally because they were seen to be fighting against
an immediate threat on behalf of the people and not because their
Communist ideology generated great enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, majorities within many Communist nations did come
to believe in and endorse Communist ideas. Many can be found who
are nostalgic for the good old days under Communism within the
former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and there have been notable
instances in which Communists have been returned to power by popular
vote in former Communist dictatorships.
On the whole, it must be said that the general aims and ideas and much of the strategy of socialists and Communists have been freely available to anyone who wished to pay attention.
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