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While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels defined communism as a political movement, there were already similar ideas in the past which one could call communist experiments. Marx himself saw primitive communism as the original hunter-gatherer state of humankind. For Marx, only after humanity was capable of producing surplus did private property develop.
The idea of a classless and stateless society based on communal ownership of property and wealth also stretches far back in Western thought long before The Communist Manifesto. There are scholars who have traced communist ideas back to ancient times, particularly in the work of Pythagoras and Plato. Followers of Pythagoras, for instance, lived in one building and held their property in common because the philosopher taught the absolute equality of property with all worldly possessions being brought into a common store.
It is argued that Plato's Republic described in great detail a communist-dominated society wherein power is delegated in the hands of intelligent philosopher or military guardian class and rejected the concept of family and private property. In a social order divided into warrior-kings and the Homeric demos of craftsmen and peasants, Plato conceived an ideal Greek city-state without any form of capitalism and commercialism with business enterprise, political plurality, and working-class unrest considered as evils that must be abolished. While Plato's vision cannot be considered a precursor of communist thinking, his utopian speculations that are shared by other utopian thinkers later on.
There are those who view that the early Christian Church, such as that one described in the Acts of the Apostles (see Christian communism), was an early form of communism. The view is that communism was just Christianity in practice and Jesus Christ as the first communist. This link was highlighted in one of Marx's early writings which stated: "As Christ is the intermediary unto whom man unburdens all his divinity, all his religious bonds, so the state is the mediator unto which he transfers all his Godlessness, all his human liberty". Furthermore, the Marxist ethos that aims for unity reflects the Christian universalist teaching that humankind is one and that there is only one god who does not discriminate among people. Pre-Marxist communism was also present in the attempts to establish communistic societies such as those made by the Essenes and by the Judean desert sect.
Peter Kropotkin argued that the elements of mutual aid and mutual defense expressed in the medieval commune and its guild system were the same sentiments of collective self-defense apparent in modern communism and socialism.
In the 16th century, English writer Sir Thomas More portrayed a society based on common ownership of property in his treatise Utopia, whose leaders administered it through the application of reason.
Several groupings in the English Civil War supported this idea, but especially the Diggers, who espoused clear communistic yet agrarian ideals. Oliver Cromwell and the Grandees' attitude to these groups was at best ambivalent and often hostile.. Criticism of the idea of private property continued into the Enlightenment era of the 18th century through such thinkers as the deeply religious Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Raised a Calvinist, Rousseau was influenced by the Jansenist movement within the Roman Catholic Church. The Jansenist movement originated from the most orthodox Roman Catholic bishops who tried to reform the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century to stop secularization and Protestantism. One of the main Jansenist aims was democratizing to stop the aristocratic corruption at the top of the Church hierarchy.[page needed] Utopian socialist writers such as Robert Owen are also sometimes regarded as communists.
Maximilien Robespierre and his Reign of Terror, aimed at exterminating the nobility and conservatives, was admired among some communists. In his turn, Robespierre was a great admirer of Rousseau.
Francois Babeuf has both been described as an anarchist and communist by later scholars to describe his ideas. The word "communism" was first used in English by Goodwyn Barmby in a conversation with those he described as the "disciples of Babeuf". He has been called "The First Revolutionary Communist."
The Shakers of the 18th century under Joseph Meacham developed and practiced their own form of communalism, as a sort of religious communism, where property had been made a "consecrated whole" in each Shaker community.
The Communards and the Paris Commune are often seen as proto-communists, and had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the "dictatorship of the proletariat".
Lewis Henry Morgan's descriptions of "communism in living" as practised by the Iroquois Nation of North America. This was a primary inspiration for Marx and Engel's description of primitive communism, and has lead to some believing that early communist-like societies also existed outside of Europe, in Native American society and other pre-Colonized societies in the Western hemisphere.
Primitive communism meaning societies that practiced economic cooperation among the members of their tribes, where almost every member of a tribe had his or her own contribution to society and land and natural resources would often be shared peacefully among the tribe. Some such tribes in North America and South America still existed well into the 20th century.
Marx saw communism as the original state of mankind from which it rose through classical society and then feudalism to its current state of capitalism. He proposed that the next step in social evolution would be a return to communism.
In its contemporary form, communism grew out of the workers' movement of 19th-century Europe. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for creating a class of poor, urban factory workers who toiled under harsh conditions and for widening the gulf between rich and poor.