What’s the Difference Between Socialism and Communism?

By Mark Nichol

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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12 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between Socialism and Communism?”

  • Kim Siever

    Sorry for the lateness in my reply. I tend to not return to places where I’ve commented if I never receive notifications of new replies.

    Jack Kelly, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was governed by the Communist Party. But that does not mean it was communist. With that logic, North Korea is democratic because it’s actual name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A communist society is a classless society, and a state is the ultimate in class-based society. As Nikolai Bukharin wrote in The ABC of Communism: “In a communist society there will be no classes. But if there will be no classes, this implies that in communist society there will likewise be no state.” A communist state is an oxymoron.

    No, venqax, it’s not that type of fallacy at all. It’s about the popular meaning of communism being incorrect.

    Ed Phillips, you have that backwards: communism is worker control of the means of production and socialism is state control of the means of production.

  • Ed Phillips

    I feel that the describing the political spectrum as “left” & “right” can be misleading. It seems to be more circular. If you go far enough in either direction and you end up in the same place; dictatorial totalitarianism. That may explain why, as venqax observes in an earlier post, so many aspects of historic fascism mirror goals of the political left -and so few of them jibe with the values of the current political right.

    I was once given a simple distinction for “socialism” versus “communism”: in socialism, the tools of production are controlled by the workers- whereas in communism they are controlled by the government. I must admit, however, that I am not aware of any government (ever) which truly meets that definition of socialism.

  • venqax

    I have to echo Jack Kelly re Kim Siever: No Communists in the Cold War? Is this one of those No True Scotsman kinds of things?

  • Jack Kelly

    Since this is a writing blog (site?) may I point out that ‘advocate for’ is redundant? ‘Advocate’ is all you need.

    Note to Kim S.: The opponents in The Cold War were Warsaw Pact countries on one side and NATO countries on the other. Warsaw Pact group was centered around Soviet Union but included 6 other countries — all were considered client states of Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was governed by the Communist Party.

  • venqax

    The amount of controversy this has stirred up is itself telling. The entry by Abdul-Kareem Abdul-Rahman goes far beyond what is necessary or even accurate for a language/writing site and the original post misses the mark a bit, too. There is no need to get into the weeds of political philosophy unless one is writing for political philosophers. Today, when popular political discourse deploys the term socialism what it means is government control of large sections of economic and social institutions; far more than is consistent with market economics, civil society and, most importantly, with the American political tradition. It doesn’t matter if it is called “democratic” socialism. Socialism is simply at odds with and can’t be supported with the traditional American definition of democracy. In modern American parlance calling something socialism does not necessitate any overblown equation of supposedly utopian philosophical blather. It just meand government involvement in everything to force outcomes deemed desirable by the government. Communism, OTOH, specifically refers to the totalitarian statist systems of China, the USSR, Cold War enemies, etc. IOW, socialism pursued to its real world conclusions if unchecked as a system because democracy will only allow so much socialism—after that you need to use brute force, human nature being the “problem”.

    Fascism, to the political Left, has similarly come to mean anything “mean”. It’s ironic that socialists get apoplectic about the loose misuse of the term socialist, but themselves misuse the term fascist to an even more inaccurate extent. Fascism seeks, just like socialism and communism, HUGE government. The only difference between them is how they justify the totalitarianism. It is supremely misleading to refer to most (not all, but the vast majority) of right-wingers in American politics as “fascist” as so many of the very things they despise—high taxes, high regulation, government control of the economy, gun prohibition, the surveillance state, the BLM having “SWAT” teams—are things fascists would be just fine with.

    As for the proposal that, ”neither Sanders nor Obama wants[bold mine] the totalitarian form of government seen in the world’s communist regimes” I would agree with Roberta B.’s sentiments, at least to the extent that we can know. I would not confuse what such actors want with what they know they can actually achieve. Evidence indicates that the US’s democratic and constitutional conventions and limits present a lot of frustration for these people.

  • Melissa Semento

    I appreciate the details that you provided in your explanation of the apparent differences that exist within the political terminology that has bombarded our media. It was so interesting to realize that extreme caution must be exercised when using a term that is, essentially, a political label.

  • David Knuttunen

    Seriously? You’re going to go there? What does this have to do with writing? “Socialism” and “communism” (and for that matter “fascism” and “totalitarianism”) are contested terms. There are no simple, universally accepted standard definitions, and probably never will be. You will find scholars (let alone non-scholars) who will argue radically different, seemingly even opposite, definitions, or sometimes even argue that one term or another is effectively meaningless, and shouldn’t be used at all. (This is particularly true with “fascism” and “totalitarianism”.) I am almost finished reading a 220 page book (not counting bibliography and notes) solely devoted to answering the question “What is fascism?” which you try to dispose of in a sentence. And I have been on the national board of an organization with “socialist” in it’s name, but one which I have known members of other socialist organizations to insist is not socialist, at all.

  • Serge Blankstein

    As a person with first-hand experience with some of the cited -isms, I attest Mark’s descriptions as adequate and fairly comprehensive for a grammar blog.
    Going into political details inevitably provokes discussion that has nothing to do with the beauty of the language. I believe that popular on the web “two cows economics” (Google it and thou shalt find) could be a sufficient answer for the writing class.

  • Josh

    “The difference between communism and socialism . . . is merely the difference between murder and suicide.”
    –Ayn Rand

  • Kim Siever

    Roberta B,

    It is not rightly so that whose who lived through the Cold War equate socialism with communism. Equating the two is completely false. And the Cold War has nothing to do with communism since none of the parties involved in the Cold War were communist.

  • Roberta B.

    I thought maybe you were going to say: “Of course, when human nature—specifically, competition—is inserted into the equation, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

    Also, I beg to differ with you. Sanders has said that under his vision everything essential would be free (education, health care, etc.)supported by taxes on producers. That’s about as “workers’ paradise” as it gets regardless of whether it’s social democracy or social totalitarianism, and what incentive would there be to produce? Doesn’t that mean your choices would be limited so that everybody gets the same regardless of what you contribute? One size fits all? Isn’t that a form of totalitarianism when someone else determines what they take or give from you and what’s right for you? It’s rightfully so that those who lived through the Cold War equate socialism with Communism. That’s what it ends up being when some official ends up rationing resources making decisions for individuals on some artificial or contrived reasoning.

  • Abdul-Kareem Abdul-Rahman

    Dear Sir/Mdm.,

    I am afraid for the benefit of your readers I need to point out that some important parts of your assessment, of what the meanings of socialism and communism are, are unfortunately inaccurate. You unfortunately have not kept to your own advice : “..writers should take care to observe distinctions in connotation, lest the language become muddled by ambiguity”.

    Specifically, you suggest that “… socialism is a goal and communism is what will result”. And that “…socialism is a bridge between capitalism and communism”.

    Both of these conceptualisations are incorrect.

    To suggest at all that those working towards socialist policies will end up in communism is false. There have been many governments across the world in the last 100 years or so who are are socialist, but who have not made their societies or countries communist, and in many cases, in spite of having formed governments for the majority of their modern democratic histories. This includes the Labour party in the UK, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and the Swedish Social Democratic Party.

    Leading on to the second conceptual error, it is better to understand socialism as a political philosophy focusing on the betterment of society as a whole, viewing this as what will bring the greatest joy on and potential of life of the individual. Bettering society as a whole entails equality as members who are more able support and invest in those who are less so in order that the whole society benefits (as those who were less able previously, are then able to themselves ‘help’ their able helpers (e.g. larger middle class can buy the sorts of products sold by high end product manufacturers, better educated populace lifts up overall quality of life, etc.), as well as others who are less able, as they themselves become more able from the support they receive).

    It is clear from my explanation above that in no way need socialism become communism. In fact, most successful socialist governments fully support capitalism (although not in an absolutely unfettered way) and can be seen in indexes of creativity (1), and the existence of many private companies leading or being prominent in their industries while being governed by socialist governments (Nokia, Volvo, Siemens and many others).

    So what is communism then? It is clear from this also that communism is a sub-set of socialism: perhaps with the same social goals of social betterment and equality, but not agreeing with the economic concept of capitalism. Therefore it can be argued that communism is more an economic philosophy, focusing on the lack of private property, while capitalism, also an economic (not political concept) focuses on the freedom of having such private property.

    Therefore, it can be summed up that the difference between socialism and communism is that the former is a political concept but that the latter is an economic one (among other economic approaches) that can be adopted to implement the former.

    From this also, it can be seen therefore that the opposite of socialism is not capitalism (as many socialists have capitalist economic systems), but rather something else. And what is this opposing concept? It is conservatism, focusing more on the freedom of the already-able to do as they wish, a condition many would argue is the natural state of human kind. And so such aims are meant to conserve this overarching status quo.

    Hope this is useful.

    1) http://martinprosperity.org/content/insight-the-2015-global-creativity-index/

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