Communism and socialism are political and economic systems that are related but often confused with each other. Here is how the two compare in theory and in practice.

Key Takeaways

  • Communism and socialism are political and economic systems that share certain beliefs, including greater equality in the distribution of income.
  • One way communism differs from socialism is that it calls for the transfer of power to the working class by revolutionary rather than gradual means.
  • Both communism and socialism advocate public control of the means of production, although socialism allows for the continued existence of capitalism in some parts of the economy.

What Is Communism?

At its most basic, communism is a philosophy based on the equitable distribution of wealth among a nation's citizens and common ownership of all property. In particular, it called for the control of the means of production, such as manufacturing and agriculture, by the working class, or proletariat. Its ultimate goal was achieving a classless society, at which point the state (or government) would "wither away."

Contemporary communism is an offshoot of socialism and is sometimes called revolutionary socialism for advocating the takeover of governmental powers by the working class through revolution rather than incremental reform.

What Is Socialism?

Socialism encompasses a broader spectrum of political beliefs but shares communism's emphasis on a fair (if not necessarily equal) distribution of wealth among citizens, as well as public ownership of the means of production (though not necessarily all of them). In that sense, socialist programs and policies can exist alongside capitalism in a society, which is less likely in a true communist system. Socialists may or may not see a communist system as their end goal.

History of Communism

Although modern communism is considered a type of socialism, many of its ideas are actually older. The concept of the communal ownership of property, for example, can be traced back to ancient times.

Communism in today’s sense dates to the 19th century, particularly with the publication, in 1848, of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The philosophy they laid out is often referred to as Marxism.

"The basic thought running through the Manifesto," Engels wrote in a preface, was that, "all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social evolution; that this struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, class struggles..."

Engels dismissed socialism as a middle-class movement led by "social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances." Communism, by contrast, was a working-class movement aimed at a total dismantling of the power structure.

Marx and Engels traced the inequality of their day to the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century, arguing that the mechanization of production had exacerbated social inequality, dividing society into two classes: those who owned the means of production and possessed wealth (the bourgeoisie) and the workers who were at their economic mercy (the proletariat).

To address the problem, they prescribed a system in which the workers themselves "take the control of industry and of all branches of production," along with the abolition of private property and "the communal ownership of goods."

Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the victorious Bolsheviks, expanded on the principles of Marxism, as did Lenin's eventual successor, Joseph Stalin. Their ideas evolved into Marxism-Leninism, which, rather than seeing the state wither away, called for rule by a single political party. That was the system that governed the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.

Today, only five countries—China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam—identify their governments as communist. In addition, a number of other nations have communist parties that participate, to varying degrees, in the political process.

History of Socialism

Like Marxism, modern socialism arose in the 19th century in response to the Industrial Revolution and what many perceived to be the excesses of capitalism. Instead of the individualism encouraged by a capitalist system, it emphasized the "collective good," or collectivism. It grew out of ideas about redistribution of wealth that developed during the Enlightenment and revolutionary movements of the 18th century.

A major difference between socialism and Marxism/communism was that socialism generally advocated a more gradual, even voluntary, transfer of power from the wealthy to the working class. Among its leading proponents on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean was Robert Owen, himself a prosperous, Welsh-born owner of textile mills.

Some early socialists including Owen, often referred to as utopian socialists, created communities based on shared property in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. One well-known American example was the Shakers, a Protestant sect formed in England that established settlements throughout the eastern and Midwestern U.S. starting in the late 18th century.

Following Marx and Engels’ articulation of communist principles in 1848, the socialist movement split into two broad factions. Adherents who still called themselves socialists maintained their gradualist approach, while communists urged more aggressive action.

From the 19th century on, socialist principles have had an influence on public policy in Great Britain, France, and other countries—in particular through laws aimed at protecting workers' rights, including the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively.

Social democracy is a strain of socialism that allows capitalism to exist but attempts to reign in its excesses through regulation while also addressing inequality through government-run social programs. It gained ground after World War II, in part as a response to the economic failures and brutal governance of the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are examples of social democracies, and many social welfare programs in the United States and elsewhere might also be seen as social democratic initiatives. Countries that combine both socialism and capitalism in this way are sometimes referred to as having mixed economies.

In some countries where socialism has not taken hold as the official form of government, political parties such as the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom exert large influence.

Communism and Socialism in the United States

Communism has never gained much of a foothold in the United States, although the Communist Party USA, founded in 1919, has run candidates for public office over the years. As a result of the post-World War II Red Scare in the U.S., Congress passed legislation outlawing the Communist Party in 1954. But much of that law has since been repealed, and the party remains in existence. 

Socialism has fared better but has also had its ups and downs. Numerous socialists have been elected to positions as mayors and several have been elected members of Congress. Eugene V. Debs, who was the socialist candidate for president in five elections (1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920), earned close to 1 million votes on his final try. More recently, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist," was a serious contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020.

For decades, the terms "communist" and "socialist" have been used in the U.S. to attack political opponents, often people who were neither. Similarly, countless government programs and legislative proposals have been denounced as "socialist" or "communist" by those who oppose them for one reason or another. Both of those traditions continue to this day.