Loading the player...
A:

Communism and socialism are umbrella terms referring to two left-wing schools of economic thought; both oppose capitalism. These ideologies have inspired various social and political movements since the 19th century. Several countries have been or are currently governed by parties calling themselves communist or socialist, though these parties' policies and rhetoric vary widely.

As an ideology, communism is generally regarded as hard-left, making fewer concessions to market capitalism and electoral democracy than do most forms of socialism. As a system of government, communism tends to center on a one-party state that bans most forms of political dissent. These two usages of the term "communism" – one referring to theory, the other to politics as they are practiced – need not overlap: China's ruling Communist Party has an explicitly pro-market capitalist orientation and pays only lip service to the Maoist ideology whose purist adherents (Peru's Shining Path in its heyday, for example) regard Chinese authorities as bourgeois counterrevolutionaries. (See also, Why Populist Leaders Are Great for Stocks.)

Socialism can refer to a vast swath of the political spectrum, in theory and in practice. Its intellectual history is more varied than that of communism: the Communist Manifesto devotes a chapter to criticizing the half-dozen forms of socialism already in existence at the time, and proponents have taken just about every left-of-center stance on the ideal (or best achievable) structure of economic and political systems.

Socialists can be pro- or anti-market. They may consider the ultimate goal to be revolution and the abolition of social classes, or they may seek more pragmatic outcomes: universal healthcare, for example, or a universal pension scheme. Social Security is a socialist policy that has been adopted in the unabashedly capitalist U.S. (as are the eight-hour working day, free public education and arguably universal suffrage). Socialists may run for election, forming coalitions with non-socialist parties, as they do in Europe, or they may govern as authoritarians, as the Chavista regime does in Venezuela.

Defining Communism and Socialism

To better understand the slippery distinctions between communism and socialism, let's trace the history of both terms.

Communism

Communism traces its roots to "The Communist Manifesto," an 1848 pamphlet by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The document laid out a theory of history as a struggle between economic classes, which will inevitably come to a head through a violent overthrow of capitalist society, just as feudal society was violently overthrown during the French Revolution, paving the way for bourgeois hegemony (the bourgeoisie is the class that controls the means of economic production).

Following the communist revolution, Marx argued, workers (the proletariat) would take control of the means of production. After a period of transition, the government would fade away, as workers build a classless society and an economy based on common ownership. Production and consumption would reach an equilibrium: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Religion and the family, institutions of social control that were used to subjugate the working class, would go the way of the government and private ownership. (See  3 Lessons Karl Marx Teaches Us.)

Marx's revolutionary ideology inspired 20th-century movements that fought for, and in some cases won, control of governments. The Bolshevik revolution in 1917 overthrew the Russian czar and following a civil war established the Soviet Union, a nominally communist empire that collapsed in 1991. The Soviet Union was only "nominally" communist because, while ruled by the Communist Party, it did not achieve a classless, stateless society in which the population collectively owned the means of production. (See also, Command Economy.)

In fact, for the first four decades of the Soviet Union's existence, the Party explicitly acknowledged that it had not created a communist society. Until 1961, the Party's official stance was that the Soviet Union was governed by the "dictatorship of the proletariat," an intermediate stage along the inevitable progression towards the final stage of human evolution: true communism. In 1961, Premier Nikita Krushchev declared that the Soviet state had begun "withering away," though it would persist for another three decades. When it did collapse in 1991, it was supplanted by a nominally democratic, capitalist system.

No 20th- or 21st-century communist state has created the post-scarcity economy Marx promised in the 19th century. More often, the result has been acute scarcity: tens of millions of people died as a result of famine and political violence after the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, for example. Rather than eliminating class, China's and Russia's communist revolutions created small, enormously wealthy Party cliques that profited from connections to state-owned enterprises. Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam, the world's only remaining communist states (with the exception of de facto capitalist China), have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) roughly the size of Tennessee's.

Socialism

Socialism predates the Communist Manifesto by a few decades. Early versions of socialist thought were articulated by Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), who was himself an admirer of ur-capitalist Adam Smith, but whose followers developed utopian socialism; Robert Owen (1771-1858); Charles Fourier (1772-1837); Pierre Leroux (1797-1871); and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who is famous for declaring that "property is theft."

These thinkers put forward ideas such as a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, a sense of solidarity among the working class, better working conditions, and common ownership of productive resources such as land and manufacturing equipment. Some called for the state to take a central role in production and distribution. They were contemporary with early workers' movements such as the Chartists, who pushed for universal male suffrage in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s. A number of experimental communities were founded based on the early socialists' utopian ideals; most were short-lived. (See also, What Exactly Is a Socialist Economy?)

Marxism emerged in this milieu. Engels called it "scientific socialism" to distinguish it from the "feudal," "petty-bourgeois," "German," "conservative" and "critical-utopian" strains the Communist Manifesto singled out for criticism. Socialism was a diffuse bundle of competing ideologies in its early days, and it stayed that way. Part of the reason is that the first chancellor of newly unified Germany, Otto von Bismarck, stole the socialists' thunder when he implemented a number of their policies. Bismarck was no friend to socialist ideologues, whom he called "enemies of the Reich," but he created the West's first welfare state and implemented universal male suffrage in order to head off the left's ideological challenge.

Since the 19thcentury, a hard-left brand of socialism has advocated radical societal overhaul – if not an outright proletarian revolution – that would redistribute power and wealth along more equitable lines. Strains of anarchism have also been present in this more radical wing of the socialist intellectual tradition. Perhaps as a result of Bismarck's grand bargain, however, many socialists have seen gradual political change as the means to improving society. Such "reformists," as hardliners call them, were often aligned with "social gospel" Christian movements in the early 20thcentury. They logged a number of policy victories: regulations mandating workplace safety, minimum wages, pension schemes, social insurance, universal healthcare and a range of other public services, which are generally funded by relatively high taxes.

After the world wars, socialist parties became a dominant political force in much of Western Europe. Along with communism, various forms of socialism were heavily influential in the newly decolonized countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, where leaders and intellectuals recast socialist ideas in a local mold – or vice-versa. Islamic socialism, for example, centers on zakat, the requirement that pious Muslims give away a portion of their accumulated wealth. Meanwhile socialists across the rich world aligned themselves with a range of liberation movements. In the U.S., many, though by no means all, feminist and civil rights leaders have espoused aspects of socialism.

On the other hand, socialism has acted as an incubator for movements that are generally labeled far-right. European fascists in the 1920s and 1930s adopted socialist ideas, though they phrased them in nationalist terms: economic redistribution to the workers specifically meant Italian or German workers and then only a certain, narrow type of Italian or German. In today's political contests, echoes of socialism – or economic populism, to critics – are easily discernible on the both the right and left. 

See also The History of Economic Thought.

RELATED FAQS
  1. The differences between capitalism and socialism

    One promotes free market conditions, the other incorporates elements of centralized economic planning. Read more to learn ... Read Answer >>
  2. What are the most important aspects of a capitalist system?

    Understand the main aspects of a capitalist system and how they contrast with the tenets of other types of economic systems, ... Read Answer >>
Related Articles
  1. Insights

    The Difference Between Communism and Socialism

    Communism and socialism are economic and political structures that promote equality and seek to eliminate social classes.
  2. Insights

    Can Socialism Work In America?

    Capitalism has its shortcomings, but pure socialism is not the answer. The American system of capitalism with socialistic touches might be good for the US.
  3. Insights

    Political Ideologies And Stocks

    Learn how different political systems affect emerging market stocks.
  4. Retirement

    Will the Social Security Cap Increase Help It Last Longer?

    The Social Security cap increase will be 7% in 2017, but even that may not be enough to keep Social Security from running out of funds.
  5. Personal Finance

    Social Finance Careers: How to Get Started

    Find out how to get a financial career in the specialized field of social finance with a more social objective that goes beyond just bringing in profits.
  6. Retirement

    When Do I Stop Paying Social Security Tax?

    Almost never, unless you belong to one of these special groups.
  7. Retirement

    Tips on How to Navigate the Social Security System

    Here are three places to turn for help when navigating the convoluted Social Security system.
  8. Small Business

    Social Media: High Risk, High Potential Returns

    Carefully selecting social media ETFs can provide you with the opportunity to diversify your portfolio and enjoy financial rewards due to user growth.
  9. Retirement

    What Will Social Security Look Like When You Retire?

    Many workers are not confident that Social Security will be around during their retirement. Here's what you need to know about its future.
RELATED TERMS
  1. Communism

    Communism is an ideology that advocates a classless system in ...
  2. Karl Marx

    Karl Marx was a 19th century philosopher, author and economist ...
  3. Capitalism

    Capitalism is an economic system whereby capital goods are owned ...
  4. Marxism

    Marxism is a social, political and economic philosophy that examines ...
  5. Social Responsibility

    Social responsibility is the idea that a company should not just ...
  6. Marxian Economics

    Marxian economics is based on of the work of Karl Marx, which ...
Trading Center