Updated: Apr 23, 2022
The terms, ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ are often used interchangeably. Yet in some respects, they are more like antonyms than synonyms. Most Americans abhor communism. This, of course, is a hangover from the old ideological conflict between communism and Christianity and the more recent Cold War between the USSR and the USA.
Americans’ views on socialism are much more varied, but generally, more benign. Is that distinction based on an accurate understanding of the differences between the two ideologies? Let’s explore.
Both communism and socialism believe that the current distribution of wealth in the world is unjust. This distribution reflects an underlying ‘algorithm’ that rewards native talent, hard work, risk taking, and to some extent, sheer luck. Defenders of the socio-economic status quo will, of course, emphasize the ‘hard work’ and ‘risk taking’ elements of the algorithm; detractors will highlight the inequality inherent in the ‘talent’ and ‘luck’ components.
Both communists and socialists would prefer a distributive algorithm that places primary emphasis on the value of each human being qua human being. Everyone would be entitled, at least ab initio, to a non-trivial share of society’s wealth. The current variables might still be allowed to operate but to a much more limited degree.
Both Karl Marx, the ‘founder’ of communism, and his socialist predecessors understood that the distribution of society’s goods reflects the ownership of its ‘means of production’ (factories, farms, etc.). Marx noted that in a capitalist society, the means of production are generally owned by people and groups that have ‘surplus wealth’ (or ‘capital’) that they can afford to invest in pursuit of future returns. (Folks who need to ‘invest’ every cent they make just to obtain basic food and shelter are unlikely to also own factories.)
While both socialists and communists understand that permanent economic change would require a change in the way that the means of production are owned and managed, they have very different ideas on what that new ownership should look like. Classical communists believe that the means of production, the engines of wealth, should ultimately be owned by the producers (workers) themselves.
Crudely speaking, a factory combines technology (including machinery), raw materials and labor to produce products that generate the profits that ultimately become ‘surplus wealth’. The workers in that factory, at least theoretically, own their own labor; why should they not also own the products that their labor produces and the profits that those products generate?
Socialists, on the other hand, tend to believe that the means of production should be owned, or at least strictly managed, by society as a whole. Workers engaged in a common enterprise would not own their own means of production but rather they would share in the ownership of all means of production, generally.
Both socialists and communists envision the ‘state’ playing a crucial role in rebalancing the distribution of wealth. It is understood that the ‘propertied classes’ are unlikely to give up their wealth and privilege voluntarily. It is assumed that a strong state would be needed to achieve an organized and non-violent redistribution of that wealth.
According to the socialist model, a strong state will always be needed to manage the economy and oversee the equitable distribution of income. Most communists, on the other hand, see an omnipotent state as a temporary necessity only. Once the means of production have been decentralized and transferred into the hands of the workers, there is little need for a strong central government. The state will atrophy and, perhaps one day, even ‘wither away’.
Driven by these differing economic and political visions, socialists and communists also disagree about how society itself should be organized.
Socialists tend to believe that policy should be set at the broadest level, the level of the central government. They believe that the central government should legislate for society as a whole. Power is centralized and ‘trickles down’ to more local communities. Communists envision an entirely different approach. People naturally exist in social groups (e.g. work sites, industries, social organizations, neighborhoods). Each of these groups performs a social function and each person performs his or her ‘civic duty’ through participation in one or more of these groups.
People are not islands. According to the communist model, society begins at the level of these natural groupings. So far as possible, such groups should be self-governing. To the extent that broader social policy is needed (e.g. coordinated economic planning or national defense), representatives may be sent by these groups to make up regional or national assemblies. Power is local and ‘trickles up’. Communists’ and socialists’ visions of political process reflect these disparate social models. Socialists usually insist that the (central) government be chosen according to the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. People are islands after all.
Communists, on the other hand, see politics as another phase in the workers’ struggle to gain control of the fruits of their labor. As long as a state is needed, a strong workers’ party (often the ‘Communist Party’) is expected to play a dominant role in shaping government policy.
So, we see that the relationship between communism and socialism is complex. There is much that overlaps, but there are important differences. Broadly speaking, communism may be seen to adopt many of the ideas and institutions of socialism; but it adapts those ideas and institutions to its own unique social vision.
Final note: Nothing in this essay should be interpreted as either endorsing or disparaging socialism or communism (1) in absolute terms, (2) relative to each another, or (3) relative to entirely different models of social organization.
However, I would be remiss if I did not at least offer one important caveat. Both systems rely heavily on the institution of the ‘state’ to accomplish their objectives; but both totally misunderstand the intrinsic nature of that ‘state’.
Communism views the state as a passive agent of the proletariat while socialism views it as a passive agent of the polity (electorate) in general. Nothing could be further from reality!
The state is always an actor in its own right; it has its own interests and, consequently, its own agenda. For the most part, those interests and that agenda run at cross purposes to the aims of both socialism and communism. In a post capitalist society, the state becomes its own ‘special interest’, its own social class, a new bourgeoisie. No wonder a recent poll of French teenagers found that the vast majority aspired to a career in civil service. How few teenagers in the U.S. would say the same!