In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Challenge of Communism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of the Challenge of Communism
  • Historical Context
  • Perspectives, Legacies, and Appraisals of Communism
  • Bibliographies and Encyclopedias
  • Journals

International Relations The Challenge of Communism
Mark Sandle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0085


The emergence of the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917 heralded a new stage in the uneasy relationship between Communism and its rivals. From its emergence (in its modern form) during the French Revolution, Communist thinkers and ideas offered a challenge to the existing order, and in particular the existing distribution of power and wealth. They outlined a critique of the existing system and its faults and failings, but they also offered a clear and distinctive alternative to the status quo. In the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, Communism began to emerge as a distinctive radical alternative to capitalist society. In their 1848 work, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels summarized this by describing Communism as a “spectre” haunting Europe Communists—with their vision of a society of equality, justice, harmony and co-operation which has abolished capitalism, representative democracy and the nation-state and so ended oppression and exploitation—began to organize themselves to realize their dreams of a new and better world. This evoked a response from Communism’s foes and rivals: how could they face the challenge posed by such radical voices, ideas, and political movements? Different regimes tried different things. Between 1848 and 1917 socialism and Communism began to gain ground in European society, without really threatening to seize power. The year 1917 changed everything. When the Bolsheviks rather unexpectedly seized power, no one expected them to survive, and the Western powers did all they could to strangle the new regime at birth. Having consolidated themselves in power, the Bolsheviks set out in 1919 to make the whole world Communist. The very existence of a Communist state presented a serious challenge to the Western states. The USSR turned into a practical, political, and organizational center for world revolution. It could administer, fund, support, and organize Communist revolutionaries across the globe. It could now assist the colonized peoples of the world to overthrow the colonial rulers in their countries. The nature of this challenge changed over time, however. In the first period (roughly 1919 to 1945) Communism existed both as a threat to the capitalist order, but also as a counterpoint to the threat of fascism and an ally in the struggle for national liberation. Antifascists in the West were drawn to Communism as the best hope for its defeat. The second period was the time of the Cold War (roughly 1945–1991), when the USSR and the United States carried out a deep-rooted struggle for supremacy across the globe. The Communist states sought to attract adherents, supporters, defenders and spies within the Western states, targeting intellectuals and students in particular. They also sought to win the newly independent states in the developing world to the Communist side and so grow the Communist bloc. The final stage has been the post–Cold War period: in this era there has been a move away from the polarization of the Cold War years and the emergence of a more nuanced appraisal of the nature and history of the Communist experiment.

General Overviews of the Challenge of Communism

If one turns to general texts on “the challenge of Communism,” then it is more difficult to identify a core of useful overviews. There are no textbooks that cover this. The range of topics covered by the theme of “the challenge of Communism” is broad and eclectic, and so finding general overview texts that deal with them is itself a challenge. This has been exacerbated by the trend in academia toward narrow specialization and fragmentation in the field and away from overview texts that synthesize and generalize the field. Probably the best texts in this regard are Barghoorn 1960, Hollander 1992, and Hollander 1998.

  • Barghoorn, Frederick. The Soviet Cultural Offensive. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

    NNNA classic Cold War–era text. Barghoorn examines the broad spectrum of Soviet cultural practices that were designed to promote the Soviet Union abroad. He unpacks the detailed history of Soviet cultural diplomacy and explores ways in which the West could “resist” this diplomacy.

  • Hollander, Paul. Decline and Discontent: Communism and the West Today. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992.

    NNNAn eclectic volume of shorter writings dealing with the author’s preoccupations: Communist systems, the affections and peculiarities of Western intellectuals, and the problems of social and cultural cohesion in Western societies. Hollander argues that the decay of Communism has had a negative impact on politics in the West, causing greater degrees of political estrangement among the masses and making intellectuals more critical of the West.

  • Hollander, Paul. Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society. 4th ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998.

    NNNA detailed examination of the attraction of Communism, notably the USSR, Cuba and China, to Western intellectuals from the 1930s onward. Outlines the complex political, ideological, moral, and psychological forces that created political pilgrims and fellow travelers in the West, and reflects upon the estrangement from (and disillusionment with) the West, which this phenomenon expresses.

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