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What is the difference between Socialism and Communism?

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The main problem with this question is that there are many different, conflicting definitions of both words. Even Marx and Engels themselves used the words to mean different things at different points in time. To talk about someone's specific beliefs, you generally need to use more specific terms than either "socialist" or "communist".
Socialism Vs Communism " Socialism is the idea that the working class, the class that produces the profits, the wealth, the cars, houses, planes, steel, should take over and run things collectively, democratically, for the benefit of the majority (who also "just happen" to be workers too).

Communism is the idea that society should not have classes - exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed, and so on. "
  • Socialism generally refers to an economic system, while communism refers to both an economic and political system.
  • Socialism seeks to manage the economy through deliberate and collective social control.
  • Communism seeks to manage both the economy and the society by ensuring that property is owned collectively, and that control over the distribution of property is centralized in order to achieve both classlessness and statelessness.
  • Both socialism and communism are based on the principle that the goods and services produced in an economy should be owned publicly, and controlled and planned by a centralized organization. Socialism says that the distribution should take place according to the amount of an individual's production efforts, whilst communism asserts that that goods and services should be distributed among the populace according to individuals' needs.
Additional Viewpoints from Contributors: View 1 The meaning of the words 'socialism' and 'communism' have changed and grown over the years.

Most communists would say that communism is a form of socialism, or a progression from socialism, so we will start with that word.

At its heart, Socialism stands for a belief in government for the benefit of the whole of society. It stands, therefore, opposite Liberalism, which is a belief in government (or lack thereof) for the benefit of the individual.

This broad meaning has allowed the term 'socialism' to be used to describe a very broad array of practical governmental styles.

Regardless of modern political practice, most forms of socialism owe a great debt to 19th century socialism. That period was a time of great social upheaval in Europe and many of its current and former colonies. The Industrial Revolution had irreversibly changed the way that working people lived their lives, and had brought a great many of them into the cities, where extreme poverty became normality.

Various strands of socialism began to form, trying to better the lives of the working class. Not all of them would be considered left-wing nowadays, and the Fascist and Nazi movements grew out of this period quite organically.

The German political economists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels gave enormous purpose to the general socialist movement and drew many socialists into their theories of socialism and communism. They famously wrote the Communist Manifesto, a very small document considering its reputation.

At that time, the terms, 'socialism' and 'social democracy' were largely interchangeable and they remain so to many people across the world, whose socialist or social-democratic political parties are driven primarily by the legacy of socialists other than Marx and Engels.

While many socialist parties now have Marxist factions, or attract a broad base of communist-leaning activists and voters, these parties are generally not communist, and even less Marxist.

Modern socialist parties tend to believe in a strong, centralised, welfare state, but they fall very short of communism, in that they support the right of individuals to own private capital.

Although their were 'communists' before Marx, they bear little resemblance to post-Marx Communists.

Marx was a high-profile figure in a political movement which sought to do away with the idea of private capital. It is important to note that the vast majority of communists do not believe that absolutely everything should be owned by the state, or by everybody. In his book Capital (Das Kapital in German), Marx laid out an economic philosophy, explaining how private capitalism works, how it is a deeply flawed economic practice, and how the working man and woman are exploited by capitalism's basic nature.

Marx and number of other political and economic theorists of the time, proposed that the way to achieve a dignified and high quality of life for everybody, was to communalise the economy. This wasn't just to be government for the people, it was to be government by the people. The communists called for a complete social, economic and political revolution, whereby all the private capital - the means of producing everything society needs - would be taken away from the private individuals and companies that got so rich at the expense of the works, and would be owned collectively by everyone.

In the form of communism proposed by Marx and his direct ideological descendants, such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao, this transformation would take place by a Communist Party seizing control of a national government (hopefully more than one, perhaps even them all), and instituting a transitional form of government, which would steadily communise the economy until the point where the state could be abolished and true communism would be complete. This stage they called socialism.

There are many communists who disagree with this strategy for achieving communism, in light of the atrocious crimes committed by 'Marxist' parties in the USSR, China and Cambodia in particular.

Chief among the libertarian communists are the anarchist-communists, who famously split acrimoniously with the communists led by Marx. Anarchist-communists believe that to give the state all the power is to invite disaster. They believe in the bottom-up approach to social transformation, fostering strong community and workers' groups, emphasising from the start, a need to limit personal power and heirarchies.

There are other strands of communism, but all ultimately believe in the idea of the collective ownership and management of the economy - by the people, for the people.
View 2 Socialism and communism are ideological doctrines that have many similarities as well as many differences. It is difficult to discern the true differences between socialism and communism, as various societies have tried different types of both systems in myriad forms, and many ideologues with different agendas have defined both systems in biased terms. Some main differences, however, can still be identified.

One difference between socialism and communism is that socialism is mainly an economic system, while communism is both an economic and a political system. As an economic system, socialism seeks to manage the economy through deliberate and collective social control. Communism, however, seeks to manage both the economy and the society by ensuring that property is owned collectively and that control over the distribution of property is centralized in order to achieve both classlessness and statelessness. Both socialism and communism are similar in that they seek to prevent the ill effects that are sometimes produced by capitalism.

Both socialism and communism are based on the principle that the goods and services produced in an economy should be owned publicly and controlled and planned by a centralized organization. However, socialism asserts that the distribution should take place according to the amount of individuals' production efforts, while communism asserts that that goods and services should be distributed among the populace according to individuals' needs.

Another difference between socialism and communism is that communists assert that both capitalism and private ownership of means of production must be done away with as soon as possible in order to make sure a classless society, the communist ideal, is formed. Socialists, however, see capitalism as a possible part of the ideal state and believe that socialism can exist in a capitalist society. In fact, one of the ideas of socialism is that everyone within the society will benefit from capitalism as much as possible as long as the capitalism is controlled somehow by a centralized planning system.

Finally, another difference between socialism and communism is centered on who controls the structure of economy. Where socialism generally aims to have as many people as possible influence how the economy works, communism seeks to concentrate that number into a smaller amount.

View 3

Socialism and Communism are often used interchangeably as they are both in opposition to Capitalism but they are actually two different economic philosophies. Both have been theorized in different versions ranging from libertarian to authoritarian along the social spectrum. Societies having these economic philosophies bear little resemblance to one another if they are on opposite sides of the social spectrum. To add to the confusion many political entities have described themselves as "Socialist" or "Communist" in name, without actually adhering to either in their economic policies. One of the most notable is the Nationalist Socialist German Worker's party which incorporated "Socialist" into their name but actually carried out a mixed policy of privatized and state Capitalism. Another infamous and most commonly cited one was the U.S.S.R., which not only claimed to be Socialist but also claimed to be a Federation of Democratic Republics. In reality that government was an oppressive bureaucracy with a centrally planned state capitalist economy.

Both Socialism and Communism oppose the private ownership of the means of production and the products produced from that capital, ie. Capitalism. Instead Socialism advocates ownership by the workers who use the capital and Communism advocates ownership of capital by the entire community. So in Capitalism an individual or group of individuals would own a factory, all the machines that produce, let's say a car, and all the cars produced. They then hire workers to make the cars and pay them wages that they compete with each other for. Afterwards they sell the cars and keep what they make above their expenses as profit. In Socialism the workers in the factory own the factory, machines, and the cars produced. After they produce their cars they sell them on a market and distribute what they make above their expenses amongst themselves. The workers only have collective ownership of where they work and what they produce. Finally, in Communism the entire community collectively owns all industries and everything produced in those industries. The workers in the commune's car factory would produce cars that could either be distributed within the commune or sold to others with the profits being distributed amongst all members of the commune.
It is important to differentiate State Capitalism from even the most authoritarian version of Socialism and Communism. In the latter government institutions are limited to the enforcement of Socialist and Communist property rights, ie. Ensuring that workers have free access to capital, or that profits are distributed to everyone who has a right to them. In a State Capitalist economy government bureaucrats own the means of production, set wages for their citizens, and distribute goods and services. As in all economies wealth tends to concentrate with those who own the capital and the goods produced by that capital.

Primary references:

  • Max Stirner- The Ego and Its Own
  • Emma Goldman- Red Emma Speaks
  • Peter Kropotkin- Conquest of Bread, The Great French Revolution, Evolution and Environment
  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon- The Evolution of Capitalism, The Philosophy of Misery: System of Economical Contradictions, What is Property?: An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government
  • Lucy Parsons- Liberty, Equality & Solidarity
  • Michael Bakunin- God and the State, The Basic Bakunin: Writings 1869-1871
  • Errico Malatesta- Life and Ideas
  • Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti- The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti

A summarized, simplified point of view
From the two above answers the second one is very thorough but it can be hard for a person who hasn't studied left-wing ideologies to understand it. Therefore I will try to simply explain how the difference between socialism and communism has changed throughout time, and the meaning of both terms has been contorted throughout history (Like leninism being called communism and nazism being called socialism). In the dawn of all ideologies in the 19th century there were 5 main types of philosophies - Nationalism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Socialism and Utopian Socialism. After that many scientists and philosophers built on "Socialism" and many sub-ideologies were formed, one of them communism. So you can imagine it this way - Socialism is the drive C on your computer and Communism, Libertarian Socialism, Marxism, etc. are the folders in the drive. When Marx and Engels came along, they started using Socialism and Communism interchangeably, but basically you don't see the word "communism" is used less in their text because, like all the other left-wingers of the 19th century, they were building on Socialism. Then, when Lenin and the USSR came along they applied a industrialization-based economy to an agricultural country, therefore they failed and were at loss. Then they decided to create a "transition" to communism, which was surprisingly called socialism. So they claimed that they are a socialism country and socialism will lead to communism. Basically, their transition was a centralized capitalist system, and even Lenin admits that, because he thinks if Russia becomes a communist country it would be crushed through military force, and Stalin, in one of his secret letters claims that the USSR isn't socialist at all but if this went public it would mean the end of the USSR.

Now in the 21st century people either think Socialism means more to the right and Communism means more to the left or that Socialism is the "transition" to Communism, but that couldn't be further from the truth - they forget that Communism is one of the ideologies in the category Socialism
According to Karl Marx (in the middle of the 19th century), there necessarily will be a revolutionary movement because workers will not accept their situation any longer. They will size power , i.e. overthow capitalism and a workers' government will be set up. This will lead to a communist society, in which people will share things and work, they will do what they are good at, everybody will be able to get everything according to his or her needs from a central pool of resources. The state owns all the factories, land, and provides for people's needs. But, a communist society will emerge after a transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat= this period is called socialism. (As if people would have to be forced to feel how good a society were awaiting for them, if they refused to feel this and did not want to work for it, they would be persuaded.)
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