Overwhelmingly, most people’s understanding of what Communism is, comes from an extremely propagandistic presentation of the Soviet Union, generally by US right-wing sources. This would give you the idea that communism is supposed to be very authoritarian, rigidly collectivistic and anti-democratic.
This misconception is unfortunately so wide-spread that it’s not infrequent to be called a mass murderer wannabe for simply bringing it up and even though it is trivial to find out what Communism really is and how it works, this exasperatingly wrong view of it nevertheless persists in even otherwise brilliant minds.
So let me say this first: Whatever view you may have of the USSR (and there are quite a few supporters of Stalinism out there), it was not Communism.
Now, before you hasten to leave me a comment about Scotsmen and the like, it is important to know that the original thoughts of Marx and Engels were indeed the absolute opposite of Stalinism, Maoism etc. The fact that one can create a system and label it “Communism” does not make it so, anymore than North Korea is a “Democracy” or a “Republic”. Perhaps one can label it “Socialism” but this term is by itself ambiguous and does not necessarily equate to Marxism.
That is not to say that Russia did not really attempt Communism. It did, and it managed to achieve socialism for a very short while immediately after the revolution. But this newly-fledged socialism was defeated in the most humilating way. Not only did the counter-revolution won over the communists but it kept the name and the symbols to the overjoy of the capitalist of the rest of the world. Russian communism ceased to exist as soon as Stalin came to power.
But if USSR was not Communism what was it? Well, by the way it actually worked, the most fitting description for it is State Capitalism. Simply, the state took on the role of the ultimate Capitalist and set about exploiting the workers. Some of the practices it had, like the suppression of individuality, the strict hierarchical spread of power and the like, are identical to the ones within a common Capitalist corporation anyway. Others, like it’s inability to work efficiently or its large bureaucracy are problems that any sufficiently large corporation has as well. There hasn’t been a corporation of the sheer size of the Soviet Union of course so a direct comparison is impossible, but looking at the dinosauric movements of some of the biggest ones certainly points to that direction.
Another common opinion on this Communism = USSR misunderstanding is the claim that Communism has proven to be a failure. This attempts to show that the path Russia took in the early 20th century is the only possible result any attempt for Communism can achieve and thus it is not worth struggling towards it. But this is not simply wrong, it is intellectually dishonest. This assumes that the very unique situation Russia had to struggle is the common situation any communist revolution will have to face which is simply absurd.
Not only was the situation unique but their attempt was doomed from the start. The reason for this is that Communism requires Capitalism to exist before it can take over. It needs the hugely increased level of production achieved with it and the exploitation of the workers is what creates the revolutionary force. Russia attempted to jump directly from Feudalism (with a small growing capitalist class) to Communism while skipping the phase in between and ended up dislocating itself1. This is also the case with China as well. An agrarian society simply cannot support Communism, especially not when opposed from the rest of the world.
To extrapolate from these example to anything that may happen during our age is simply disingenuous. Not only do we have the production required to not suffer the same fate but we have many tools in our disposal that the Revolutionaries of last century couldn’t even dream of. The instant, international information exchange we can achieve now can easily be the most important.
It is simply practically impossible at this point for any attempt at communism to take even a similar path to the one of USSR and if it is achieved, it will look nothing like it.