Focus Question: What are the differences between Communism and Democracy?

lessonplan.jpgLesson Plan from a teacher in California helping students discover the differences between Communism and Democracy.

See World History II.30 for more on the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR

As a system of society, Communism is quite different from Democratic Capitalism in many ways. While total democracy is not widely spread, many forms of it are prosperous throughout the world today. Communism is based on sharing items or property, which are held in common. Its political theory is community ownership and the sharing of benefits as well as treating every worker with the same wages and benefits. On the other hand, democracies are ruled by government leaders who are elected by citizens. People’s rights control their institutions for the purpose of the people. A philosophy places a high values on the equality of individuals.

One of the first and major differences between a Communist and Democratic government is their contrary economic systems. In a communist government, the community owns the major resources and means of production. The goal of such a system is to prevent any one person or group of people from becoming extremely rich at the cost of others becoming extremely poor. The system attempts to eliminate class systems by balancing the wealth between rich and poor, hence giving everyone equal pay and ownership. Unfortunately, this results in a decrease in living standards for a vast number of people. Most Democracies have a capitalist economy, where private property and free enterprise are permitted and encouraged. Here, free enterprising helps the economy to flourish. Businesses can be privately owned, and the resulting profit or debt of the business is allotted to the owner(s). Theoretically, in this system, the harder a person works, the more money they receive, allowing them to advance in the society. A downside of capitalism is that it encourages the practice of "separation of labor," where management positions tend to receive higher payment for their work, while labor intensive jobs are normally paid less, yet may work equally hard or harder. Hence, class systems are ever-present despite the stated ideology of universal equality. Furthermore, free enterprise enables businesses to conduct manufacturing and other operations outside the countries in which they are based. This often results in the exploitation of workers in poor, economically undeveloped nations in the name of reaping greater profits in domestic markets.

In a capitalistic economy, money is used as an incentive for employees to work harder and more efficiently. In a communist economy; however, increased effort does not always translate to increased pay, and therefore the worker has reduced incentive to preform above the norm. When there is nothing to achieve by working harder, many people become slothful, which does little good for a country’s economy. In most attempts, past and present, communism has failed economically, whereas democracies have a commendable success rate.

Communism is most widely taken up by Third World countries striving for national independence and sudden social change (Russia, Cuba, and North Korea). Forms of democracy however, are usually exercised by countries, which have a long-range goal to succeed, or improve economically (Britain, U.S.A.). Most widely first heard of through Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, communism hasn’t been around nearly as long as democracy, which is first known to have existed in the city-states of ancient Greece and Rome.

In theory, everyone is equal under a communist government, however this is not true in many aspects. When only one person controls a communist government, there is little if anything to distinguish it from totalitarianism, as that one voice is the only one that really matters. In a democracy, however, every citizen theoretically has an equal say in government. In the US today, for example, suffrage rights apply to men and women alike, regardless of race, past education, heritage, etc. (However, this has not always been the case; see the American Womens' Suffrage movement and Jim Crow laws, for examples of limited democracy in modern America).

There were numerous political differences between the Soviet Union and the United States. Democracy and communism were the main issues of a period of East-West competition, tension, and conflict short of full scale war. The extremely powerful United States and Soviet Union dominated world politics. As they had totally different ideologies, political systems, economic factors and beliefs, it led to shifts between cautious cooperation and, more often, bitter superpower rivalry. The distinct differences in the political systems of the two countries were obstacles from a mutual understanding on key policy issues.

As the Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, the U.S. feared the expansion of Soviet power and communism in Western Europe and elsewhere. The Soviets were determined to maintain control of Eastern Europe.

The United States government was initially hostile to the Soviet leaders for taking Russia out of World War I and was opposed to a state based on communism. Although the United States embarked on a famine relief program in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and American businessmen established commercial ties there during the period of the New Economic Policy (1921-29), the two countries did not establish diplomatic relations until 1933. Although World War II brought the two countries into alliance, based on the common aim of defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union's aggressive, antidemocratic policy toward Eastern Europe had created tensions even before the war ended.

The Soviet Union and the United States stayed far apart during the next three decades of superpower conflict and the nuclear and missile arms race. Beginning in the early 1970s, the Soviet regime proclaimed a policy and sought increased economic cooperation and disarmament negotiations with the West. However, the Soviet stance on human rights and its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 created new tensions between the two countries. These tensions continued to exist until the dramatic democratic changes of 1989-91 led to the collapse of the Communist system and opened the way for an unprecedented degree of friendliness between the United States and Russia, as well as the other new nations of the former Soviet Union.
Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost eliminated the strict censorship practiced in the Soviet Union. Glasnost stands for openness, and Soviet citizens would not be punished so severely for criticizing their government. Perestroika, or "restructuring," was Gorbachev's attempt to end the inefficiency and corruption in government.