Communism and socialism are similar in many ways but different in others. Before diving into the primary differences between the two economic and political structures, we have to look at Karl Marx first.
What is Marxism?
Marxism might be one of the most misunderstood schools of thought in philosophy.
If one is to have a conversation with another person about it, chances are, the less-informed person will assume that it means only “communism,” and that’s it.
The uninformed may even react with hostility, due to the American media system portraying Karl Marx as such a villain because of the former Soviet Union and Maoist China, and their leaders’ attempt to bring about a communist society through totalitarian regimes.
However, Karl Marx was merely a man who wrote books (although he was a political activist too).
To avoid spending this entire essay dealing with Marxism, I suggest you just read the article written here. However, we’ll outline the main tenet of Marxism for the sake of clarity.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to condense the philosophy of an individual who wrote several books with just two sentences. But, if one were to ask for a summary of Marxist thought, then the following description would work.
The fundamental theme of Marxism is that economics is the primary agent or the fuel of historical change and that through class struggle, society will eventually establish a classless society known as communism, where everything is owned in common by the citizens.
Marx used the term “communism,” to sensationalize traditional socialism, which, as a theory, had existed long before Karl Marx.
What is Communism?
Communism is an ancient concept that has existed as a practice since before recorded history. According to Baradat, there is evidence that communist societies were some of the first modes of human social existence (1).
Communism can be understood as having four essential characteristics, including being collective, rural, agrarian, and local (1).
They are collective, in the sense that people work and own everything in common; rural, although urban communes have existed throughout history and in the modern day, and their economic base is agrarian or agricultural.
Communes are local, in the sense that they ignore the outside society, and live in their own social universe.
Karl Marx used the term “communism,” as a way of describing a utopian version of a socialist society. And after the horrors of the Soviet Union and Communist China, the word “communism,” is now forever associated with totalitarian dictatorships.
What is Socialism?
Socialism is a recent mode of existence and theoretical framework, created in the late 1700’s as an ideology. Philosophers and political economists created the theory out of genuine compassion for the exploited people in the world.
In a newly industrialized capitalist society, one where labor unions didn’t exist and the idea of human rights was just beginning, factory owners subjected their workers to very harsh conditions.
Socialism began as an ideology in reaction to the harshness of the beginning stages of capitalism, and the foundational principles of it are the public ownership of production, the elimination of poverty and suffering, as well as the establishment of welfare policies to take care of the citizens.
Socialism has four primary characteristics. It shares the idea of collectivism with communism but can be applied to an entire society or country, rather than just a small community.
The economic base of a socialist society is industrial, rather than agricultural, and it is urban, rather than rural (1).
Ironically, socialism as a theory is the most effective in relatively well-off and industrialized societies where everyone has the means to live comfortably.
We can describe socialism using three different characteristics, including the welfare state, the ownership of production, and the belief in the idea that a society should free people from material dependence.
Socialist governments have often taken over and operated entire industries, through a board of directors or a committee. Sometimes, things are owned through cooperatives, where a group of people own the industry in common and share the work together as well as the fruits of the labor.
And many modern societies have welfare states, which are socialist in principle.
A welfare state is when a country or society controls the industry and distributes its goods and services to everyone regardless of their behavior or individual characteristics.
The last feature of a socialist society, the belief that people should be freed from material dependence, is the most important one. The goal of a socialist society is to improve the material well-being of everyone in the society.
If a socialist system doesn’t actively work toward improving the well-being of all those who live within it, then it really isn’t socialism.
The Primary Differences Between Communism and Socialism
Communism is an economic and political structure where the means of production in that society are controlled by the people, the citizens, and the workers, in common, in a small community.
Socialism, on the other hand, is one where the state (the government) owns the means of production and distributes that wealth depending on the primary concerns of the elected officials, in a country, urban area, or in an entire society, rather than just a small community.
In a socialist society, workers and citizens get wages and can use it to spend it as they please, and everyone receives what they need to produce and survive, but there is rarely an incentive to get more because the government taxes the most financially prosperous citizens at a higher rate.
The truth is that some of the most successful and safest countries with relatively low-income inequality have adopted aspects of a socialist system.
For example, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom have governments that provide basic healthcare to their citizens regardless of how much they work and what kind of a person they are.
In the United States, the welfare and public education system are examples of socialism. One could argue that socialist enterprises are inefficient, or that capitalist systems are corrupt and evil, but this isn’t the purpose of this essay.
More On Communism And Socialism
In a capitalist society, for the most part, there are no limitations on the amount of wealth a person can acquire. An ambitious person with initiative can keep nearly all of the money they created.
In societies such as these, there are fewer limitations on people who are willing to work extremely hard, and the gap between the rich and the poor tends to grow larger.
The rich and successful, unfortunately, can use their financial power to influence public policy to continue to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
Communism and Socialism are two economic and political structures that are primarily concerned with the promotion of equality as well as the elimination of social classes.
Most socialist and communist theories have been created with good intentions, however, the implementation of these theories often have unintended consequences.
As it was mentioned above, in a communist society, the working class, or the workers, own everything in common. It’s a utopian society that has never been achieved.
Throughout Karl Marx’s life, other scholars and academics would write to him asking precisely how one would go about achieving this “communist society,” and what exactly would it look like?
Marx once jokingly said that it was the “land of milk and honey.” Marx never actually talked about how one would go about creating a classless society.
It wasn’t until people like Vladimir Lenin came up with ideas like “the vanguard of the proletariat,” that political activists began trying to implement communism.
Everyone is financially equal, there are no wealthy people or poor people, everybody has shared ideas and the distribution of goods goes toward each according to their needs.
People often say that “communism results in poverty and death,” however, it isn’t actually communism that leads to that, because communism applied to an entire country has never existed.
Rather, what has actually happened is that, because communism at a national level isn’t possible, leaders have tried to reach this utopian ideal at any means necessary, and the result of this was massive poverty, starvation, and totalitarianism.
It’s impossible to establish an entirely equal society for a couple of different reasons. One, people are inherently unequal.
And two, it takes a totalitarian amount of control to create a society where everyone is absolutely equal in every way.
If we are to say that, “from each according to their needs,” the state has to decide what is a need for each person.
However, a free individual may have a “need” that is entirely different from the next.
Capitalism, Communism, and Socialism
Unfortunately, whenever conversations revolve around capitalism, communism, and socialism, it usually becomes heated with the parties accusing each other of 1) either being an evil communist, or 2) being a greedy capitalist.
However, truly socialist society doesn’t exist, the same way that a truly capitalist society doesn’t currently exist.
For example, people often point to free-market countries in Scandinavia, such as Sweden, as if they’re the ideal of “socialism,” when in reality, they have a similar market system as the United States. They just have higher taxes and more state-controlled industries.
The United States isn’t 100% capitalist either, because the nation has several industries that are state-controlled, like the public education system, for example.
Many corporations in the United States also receive government funding, contrary to what those who espouse “free-markets” believe.
General Electric, for example, received around $836,524,548 in federal grants and tax credits since the year 2000 (2).
To summarize, it’s better not to think in a dichotomous nature, between a socialist system and a capitalist system, because both societies have tendencies leaning toward capitalist and socialist principles.
(1) Political Ideologies, Their Origins, And Impact