You’ve likely heard about communism and socialism before, but how much do you really know about each political theory? What is communism? What is socialism? And how are communism and socialism different?
Communism vs. Socialism
Imagine a society in which there is only one class, no physical form of money, and no private property. These are a few of the key principles of communism, an alternative to the capitalist economy that we live in today.
It’s easy to get the ideas of communism and socialism confused as they have a lot of overlapping concepts. Knowing the differences, however, can help to better understand the rhetoric of today’s news and political dialog.
What Is Communism?
The concept of communism was born out of frustration from the lower class following the Industrial Revolution, a time when business owners and inventors were using workers to their advantage by exploiting their low wages and profiting immensely, greatly widening the gap between the classes. Karl Marx, a german philosopher at the time, published the Communist Manifesto in 1848 with fellow philosopher Friedrich Engels in the hopes of eliminating global poverty. The word is derived from the Latin communis, meaning “shared” or “common”.
Marx and Engels acknowledged that capitalism was important in that competition brings about advancement, but felt that the wealth and power obtained by those who benefitted from this wasn’t being dispersed evenly. They noted that competition at any cost is immoral as it creates an environment where money and personal property are valued more than worker health and safety.
As an alternative, they envisioned a classless society where each would contribute according to their abilities and receive according to their needs, where everyone is equal from birth until death. They believed that this type of economy would be the most beneficial for society as a whole and would help level the playing field for those who weren’t born into a wealthy family.
Under communism, there would no longer be private property, and instead, everything would be owned by the government. This means that resources such as mining, farming, factories, transportation, education, etc. would be owned by the government instead of individuals or businesses. The government would decide what each person needed in terms of food, shelter, or clothing.
What Is Socialism?
Socialism is a similar concept to communism, but with a few key differences. Socialism does not require a total upheaval of a government’s current system, but rather, entails a series of transitional changes over time.
With socialism, work is merit-based and each individual contributes to society based on their own ability, rather than simply being given what the government deems necessary. This allows for some class separation, and those who work harder still earn more than those who don’t. This difference highlights a key flaw in the Communist model; the majority of people have no motivation to work harder or to get smarter, as it has no impact or benefit for them.
In a socialist society, the government would not have full control over public utilities, but rather representatives would make decisions for each domain that they feel would benefit everyone, without input from citizens. Since profits would be spread equally and poverty would be eliminated, everyone would have equal access to health care and education.
There is a common misconception that such societies have existed, but in reality, there has never been a fully communist economy. The Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea are the closest examples, but none were able to fully abolish class systems, ownership of private property, and money. These countries focused more on having the government play a central role in decision making for the good of society as a whole, which often resulted in dictatorships.
The same can be said for socialism. Norway, Sweden, France, and Canada all have socialist policies, for example. These countries have free health care and their governments play a dominant role in shared services, but they all also have strong capitalist structures and traditions in place.
While capitalism is a natural process that resulted from a history of individual growth and development, communism and socialism represent the desire to take control of the societal structures that are currently in place. Both started as being a positive solution to class inequality, however, it has since become clear that these ideals will likely never be implemented fully into modern society.