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Communisms - HIS00143H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jon Howlett
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

Few ideologies were as influential in shaping the course of modern history as Communism. Yet the idea of Communism as a unitary philosophy or monolithic political order does not stand up to scrutiny. In this course students embark on an exploration of the ways different people understood, experienced and implemented this radical political philosophy. Students are urged to consider the ways in which differing interpretations of Marxist philosophy shaped the lives of ordinary people living across diverse chronological, cultural and geographical contexts. Students first explore the development of the idea of Communism and the traditions on which early revolutionaries drew. They then turn their attention to understanding how an emancipatory ideal became the ideological basis of totalitarianism and repression in socialist states in the twentieth century.

We will next consider how those states attempted to remake the societies and people they governed over, with disastrous consequences. Alongside this, we will also think about ordinary life (going on holiday, falling in love, etc.) in communist countries. We will place particular emphasis on how people’s status, as well as their gender, sexual or racial identities shaped their experiences. We conclude by considering the collapse of socialist states and the ways in which Communism has shaped the world today.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to the practice of comparative history;
  • To enable students to acquire skills and understanding of that practice by studying a particular topic or theme; and
  • To enable students to reflect on the possibilities and difficulties involved in comparative history

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp the key approaches and challenges involved in comparative history;
  • Understand a range of aspects of the topic or theme which they have studied;
  • Be able to use and evaluate comparative approaches to that topic or theme; and
  • Have learned to discuss and write about comparative history

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1, then a 1-hour plenary/lecture and a 2-hour seminar in each of weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of the semester. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight 1-hour plenaries/lectures and eight 2-hour seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. What is Communism? Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto
  2. Marxism, socialism and anarcho-feminism
  3. Pathways to revolution: communist takeovers
  4. Stalinism and authoritarianism and broken promises
  5. Propaganda and the cult of the socialist strong man
  6. Making the world anew: science, nature and famine
  7. Everyday life under communism
  8. 1989 and the (partial) fall of communism


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Communisms
5 hours 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment work, students will produce an essay plan relating to the themes and issues of the module.

For summative assessment students will complete an Open Exam in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Communisms
5 hours 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback, which may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss their feedback during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission. For semester 1 assessments, the tutor will be available during student hours of the following semester for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For semester time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Marxist Theory and the Proletariat’ in Vorwärts (Berlin), No.64, 14 March 1903 [Marxists Internet Archive]
  • Josie McLellan, Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  • David Priestland, The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World (London: Penguin UK, 2009).

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.