A root feature of communist states has been their subscription to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. As fashioned by Lenin, building on the earlier works of Marx and Engels, it is the belief that history advances by means of class struggle, always nudged in a benign direction by the leadership of a communist party. The theory foresaw that in capitalist societies, a small vanguard of professional revolutionaries was necessary to infuse the working masses with revolutionary fervor and overthrow capitalism. This would be followed by a brief period of proletarian dictatorship--in Lenin's view, the communist party ruling on behalf of the working class--which would establish a socialist state and put in place the foundations of a communist society. Eventually class differences would vanish, the state would be abolished, and people would live in affluence and harmony.
The reality of communist regimes, however, was that of a dictatorial government of indefinite duration, and one that was as indifferent to the wishes of the working class as to every other social group.
For several generations of communists, the contradiction between theory and reality could be rationalized as the unfortunate result of the poverty of their societies, of the mistakes of individual leaders, or of the malevolence of the capitalist world. Eventually, communist elites began to have doubts about the costs and benefits of a communist regime, especially as compared to liberal Western democracies. Ordinary people also questioned parts of communist ideology and offered passive and, more rarely, active defiance of the entrenched authorities. Surveys of Soviet refugees after World War II showed that younger people, who were born under communist rule, were more accepting of the values of the system than their elders, who had memories of life before communism. When similar surveys were done in the Soviet Union in the...