What’s the Difference Between Socialism and Communism?
The terms socialism and communism, and the concepts they are labels for, are often confused. The following post attempts to clarify the distinction.
In short, socialism is often the goal, while communism is the result. Those who advocate for socialism, as well as those who discuss it neutrally from a scholarly perspective, see it as the first stage toward the ideal result of communism. Both systems of politics and economics are intended to engender a society in which there is public ownership of the means of planning and production.
Socialism, however, is seen as the bridge between capitalism and communism. In socialism, the distribution of wealth is based on the quantity and quality of work performed. In theory, this merit-based system engenders great productivity as a result of workers producing not because they have to, but because they want to. In the ensuing world of abundance, the transition to communism, in which everyone (supposedly) has access to all that they need to live happy and fulfilled lives, is assured.
Of course, when human nature—specifically, corruption—is inserted into the equation, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
What does this political discussion have to do with writing and language? As I mentioned in a previous article, socialism was one of the most frequently looked-up words on Merriam-Webster’s website. That popularity is due in great part to US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s open admission that he is a socialist and to claims that based on many of the policies promoted by the current president, Barack Obama is one as well.
Does that mean that if elected, Sanders would seek to realize the ultimate workers’ paradise, or that such was Obama’s unrealized goal? Not necessarily. To clarify, Sanders is a social democrat, espousing a compromise in which the democratic political form is combined with economic socialism. That’s an essential distinction to make: neither Sanders nor Obama wants the totalitarian form of government seen in the world’s communist regimes, especially China and the former Soviet Union, though that’s what many people, especially those who lived through the Cold War, think of when they hear about socialism.
And what is totalitarianism? This political system is one in which the state seeks absolute control of society; it is marked by the restriction of political activism to a single political party, a cult of personality around the state’s leader, and widespread propaganda and control over mass media with attendant mass surveillance of the populace and repression of free speech. (Although some people may argue that the recent administration pursued most of those goals, Obama’s presidency has been an extremely tepid totalitarian one.)
Another fraught term is fascism, which refers to a form of totalitarianism based on nationalism, which is focused on geopolitical and ethnic identity. Technically, fascism is far removed from communism—they are polar opposites on the right–left political spectrum—though in casual usage the two may be used interchangeably.
When using these or similar terms, as with any other word, writers should take care to observe distinctions in connotation, lest the language become muddled by ambiguity.
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