Communism and socialism are umbrella terms referring to two left-wing schools of economic thought; both oppose capitalism. These ideologies have inspired various social and political movements since the 19th century. Several countries have been or are currently governed by parties calling themselves communist or socialist, though these parties’ policies and rhetoric vary widely.
As an ideology, communism is generally regarded as hard-left, making fewer concessions to market capitalism and electoral democracy than do most forms of socialism. As a system of government, communism tends to center on a one-party state that bans most forms of political dissent. These two usages of the term “communism”—one referring to theory, the other to politics as they are practiced—need not overlap: China’s ruling Communist Party has an explicitly pro-market capitalist orientation and pays only lip service to the Maoist ideology whose purist adherents regard Chinese authorities as bourgeois counter-revolutionaries.
Socialism can refer to a vast swath of the political spectrum, in theory, and in practice. Its intellectual history is more varied than that of communism: “The Communist Manifesto,” an 1848 pamphlet by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, devotes a chapter to criticizing the half-dozen forms of socialism already in existence at the time, and proponents have taken just about every left-of-center stance on the ideal (or best achievable) structure of economic and political systems.
Socialists can be pro- or anti-market. They may consider the ultimate goal to be a revolution and the abolition of social classes, or they may seek more pragmatic outcomes: universal healthcare, for example, or a universal pension scheme. Social Security is a socialist policy that has been adopted in the unabashedly capitalist United States (as are the eight-hour working day, free public education, and arguably universal suffrage). Socialists may run for election, forming coalitions with non-socialist parties, as they do in Europe, or they may govern as authoritarians, as the Chavista regime does in Venezuela.
The Difference Between Communism and Socialism
Defining Communism and Socialism
To better understand the slippery distinctions between communism and socialism, let’s trace the history of both terms.
Communism traces its roots to “The Communist Manifesto,” which laid out a theory of history as a struggle between economic classes, which will inevitably come to a head through a violent overthrow of capitalist society, just as feudal society was violently overthrown during the French Revolution, paving the way for bourgeois hegemony (the bourgeoisie is the class that controls the means of economic production).
Following the communist revolution, Marx argued, workers (the proletariat) would take control of the means of production. After a period of transition, the government would fade away, as workers build a classless society and an economy based on common ownership. Production and consumption would reach an equilibrium: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Religion and the family, institutions of social control that were used to subjugate the working class, would go the way of the government and private ownership.
Marx’s revolutionary ideology inspired 20th-century movements that fought for, and in some cases won, control of governments. In 1917, the Bolshevik revolution overthrew the Russian czar and following a civil war established the Soviet Union, a nominally communist empire that collapsed in 1991. The Soviet Union was only “nominally” communist because, while ruled by the Communist Party, it did not achieve a classless, stateless society in which the population collectively owned the means of production.
In fact, for the first four decades of the Soviet Union’s existence, the Party explicitly acknowledged that it had not created a communist society. Until 1961, the Party’s official stance was that the Soviet Union was governed by the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” an intermediate stage along with the inevitable progression towards the final stage of human evolution: true communism. In 1961, Premier Nikita Khrushchev declared that the Soviet state had begun “withering away,” though it would persist for another three decades. When it did collapse in 1991, it was supplanted by a nominally democratic, capitalist system.
No 20th- or 21st-century communist state has created the post-scarcity economy Marx promised in the 19th century. More often, the result has been acute scarcity: Tens of millions of people died as a result of famine and political violence after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, for example. Rather than eliminating class, China’s and Russia’s communist revolutions created small, enormously wealthy Party cliques that profited from connections to state-owned enterprises. Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam, the world’s only remaining communist states (with the exception of de facto capitalist China), have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) roughly the size of Tennessee’s.
Socialism predates the Communist Manifesto by a few decades. Early versions of socialist thought were articulated by Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), who was himself an admirer of ur-capitalist Adam Smith, but whose followers developed utopian socialism; Robert Owen (1771–1858); Charles Fourier (1772–1837); Pierre Leroux (1797–1871); and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), who is famous for declaring that “property is theft.”
These thinkers put forward ideas such as a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, a sense of solidarity among the working class, better working conditions, and common ownership of productive resources such as land and manufacturing equipment. Some called for the state to take a central role in production and distribution. They were contemporary with early workers’ movements such as the Chartists, who pushed for universal male suffrage in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. A number of experimental communities were founded based on the early socialists’ utopian ideals; most were short-lived.
Marxism emerged in this milieu. Engels called it “scientific socialism” to distinguish it from the “feudal,” “petty-bourgeois,” “German,” “conservative,” and “critical-utopian” strains the Communist Manifesto singled out for criticism. Socialism was a diffuse bundle of competing ideologies in its early days, and it stayed that way. Part of the reason is that the first chancellor of newly unified Germany, Otto von Bismarck, stole the socialists’ thunder when he implemented a number of their policies. Bismarck was no friend to socialist ideologues, whom he called “enemies of the Reich,” but he created the West’s first welfare state and implemented universal male suffrage in order to head off the left’s ideological challenge.
Since the 19th century, a hard-left brand of socialism has advocated radical societal overhaul—if not an outright proletarian revolution—that would redistribute power and wealth along more equitable lines. Strains of anarchism have also been present in this more radical wing of the socialist intellectual tradition. Perhaps as a result of von Bismarck’s grand bargain, however, many socialists have seen the gradual political change as the means of improving society. Such “reformists,” as hardliners call them, were often aligned with “social gospel” Christian movements in the early 20th century. They logged a number of policy victories: regulations mandating workplace safety, minimum wages, pension schemes, social insurance, universal healthcare, and a range of other public services, which are generally funded by relatively high taxes.
After the world wars, socialist parties became a dominant political force in much of Western Europe. Along with communism, various forms of socialism were heavily influential in the newly decolonized countries of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where leaders and intellectuals recast socialist ideas in a local mold—or vice-versa. Islamic socialism, for example, centers on zakat, the requirement that pious Muslims give away a portion of their accumulated wealth. Meanwhile, socialists across the rich world aligned themselves with a range of liberation movements. In the U.S., many, though by no means all, feminist and civil rights leaders have espoused aspects of socialism.
On the other hand, socialism has acted as an incubator for movements that are generally labeled far-right. European fascists in the 1920s and 1930s adopted socialist ideas, though they phrased them in nationalist terms: economic redistribution to the workers specifically meant Italian or German workers and then only a certain, narrow type of Italian or German. In today’s political contests, echoes of socialism—or economic populism, to critics—are easily discernible on both the right and left.