It is easy to see how this idea got started: some of the early radicals in the First International were indeed participants in secret conspiratorial movements, and in the Stalinist era the Soviet government routinely tried to recruit Communist Party members abroad to commit espionage. Now that the archives in Russia have been opened this effort is well documented. In addition, when Communist organizations were banned or suppressed, they naturally retreated underground, just as other persecuted groups like the early Christians have done. But to characterize Communism generally as a secret conspiracy is absurd.
First, it is important to note that Karl Marx fought against the mostly anarchist-dominated factions of the First International which advocated secrecy and terrorism on the very sensible ground that a successful revolution would need the backing of the majority of the population, and that such support could be generated only by widespread public understanding of the Communist program. TheManifesto was published precisely to encourage such public understanding and begins by mocking the stereotype–already in place in 1848–of Communism as a dark underground plot. Marx spent most of his life trying to explain Communism in many books and articles.
If anyone is responsible for the general public ignorance about Communist goals and ideas it is the capitalist press, which carefully avoided publicizing them. Reams of paper were spent routinely on denouncing the ideas of leftists and detailing their actions or threats, but almost never were their writings or speeches reproduced or seriously discussed. Theodore Kaczynski (“The Unabomber”) had more success using blackmail to get his ideas before the public than did anyone from the American Communist Party in its most successful period.
The goal of Communists has always been to generate mass movements leading to popular revolution involving the overwhelming majority of the population. The idea that we might wake up tomorrow ruled by fierce Marxists who had seized power in a coup was as loony as current right-wing fantasies about U.N. black helicopters taking over the country.
However, if we nuance this misconception a bit, more than a little truth emerges from it. Although the Communists led by Lenin were not secretive about their aims, they did successfully take over the 1917 revolution whose combatants mostly did not agree with their ideas. Although Lenin’s group called itself the Bolsheviks (majority), they in fact constituted a very small minority within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. Their determination to be the leaders of the new state, their strict organizational principles, and their conviction that they could realize the the unspoken will of the masses as “the vanguard of the proletariat” led them to justify monopolizing power, suppressing all rivals, most of whom were eventually exiled or executed. They did have popular support, especially among workers and soldiers in the cities; but it is not at all clear that their philosophy was clearly understood or accepted by the Russian people generally.
Another notable instance of a revolution turning Communist was the uprising led by Fidel Castro (1956-1959) in which he did not proclaim his beliefs until after he had come to power.
In both cases, popular support for the Communist leadership was eventually generated by a combination of education, agitation, national pride, censorship, oppression, and the exile or execution of opponents. When Communist leaders have generated genuine widespread popular support (Mao in China, Stalin in World War II Russia), it was generally because they were seen to be fighting against an immediate threat on behalf of the people and not because their Communist ideology generated great enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, majorities within many Communist nations did come to believe in and endorse Communist ideas. Many can be found who are nostalgic for the good old days under Communism within the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and there have been notable instances in which Communists have been returned to power by popular vote in former Communist dictatorships.
On the whole, it must be said that the general aims and ideas and much of the strategy of socialists and Communists have been freely available to anyone who wished to pay attention.