The Differences Between Communism and Socialism

Young millworker in 1908
A young millworker in 1908; exploitative child labor was one of the ills of early capitalism.

Public Domain/Wikipedia Commons

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and communism and socialism are related concepts, the two systems are different in crucial ways. However, both communism and socialism arose in response to the Industrial Revolution, during which capitalist factory owners grew extremely wealthy by exploiting their workers.

Early in the industrial period, workers toiled under difficult and unsafe conditions, often working 12 to 14 hours per day, six days per week, without meal breaks. Workers included children as young as 6, who were valued because their small hands and nimble fingers could get inside the machinery to repair it or clear blockages. The factories often were poorly lit and had no ventilation systems, and dangerous or poorly designed machinery frequently maimed or killed the workers.

Communism

In reaction to these conditions, German theorists Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) created an alternative economic and political system called communism. In their books, "The Condition of the Working Class in England," "The Communist Manifesto," and "Das Kapital," Marx and Engels decried the abuse of workers in the capitalist system and laid out a utopian alternative.

Under communism, none of the "means of production"—such as factories and land—are owned by individuals. Instead, the government controls the means of production, and all people work together. The wealth produced is shared among the people based on their needs rather than on their contribution to the work. The result, in theory, is a classless society where property is public, rather than private.

To achieve this communist workers' paradise, the capitalist system must be destroyed through violent revolution, according to Marxist theory. Marx and Engels believed that industrial workers (the "proletariat") would rise up around the world and overthrow the middle class (the "bourgeoisie"). Once the communist system was established, governments would cease to be necessary, as everyone toiled together for the common good.

Socialism

The theory of socialism, while similar in many ways to communism, is less extreme and more flexible. For example, although government control of the means of production is one possible solution, socialism also allows for workers' cooperative groups to control a factory or farm together.

Rather than crushing capitalism and overthrowing the bourgeoisie, socialist theory allows for the more gradual reform of capitalism through legal and political processes, such as the election of socialists to national office. Also unlike communism, in which the proceeds are divided based on need, under socialism the proceeds are divided based on each individual's contribution to society.

Thus, while communism requires the violent overthrow of the established political order, socialism can work within the political structure. In addition, where communism demands central control over the means of production (at least in the initial stages), socialism allows for more free enterprise among workers' cooperatives.

The Systems in Action

Communism and socialism were each designed to improve the lives of ordinary people and to more equitably distribute wealth. In theory, either system should have been able to provide for the working masses. In practice, however, the two had very different outcomes.

Because communism provides no incentive for people to work—after all, the central planners will simply take your products, then redistribute them equally regardless of how much effort you expend—it tended to lead to impoverishment. Workers quickly realized that they would not benefit from working harder, so most gave up. Socialism, in contrast, does reward hard work. Each worker's share of the profit depends upon one's contribution to society.

Asian countries that implemented communism in the 20th century include Russia (as the Soviet Union), China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea. In every case, communist dictators rose to power to enforce the reordering of the political and economic structure. Today, Russia and Cambodia are no longer communist, China and Vietnam are politically communist but economically capitalist, and North Korea continues to practice communism.

Countries with socialist policies, in combination with a capitalist economy and democratic political system, include Sweden, Norway, France, Canada, India, and the United Kingdom. In each of these cases, socialism has achieved the moderation of capitalistic drives for profit at any human expense, without disincentivizing work or brutalizing the populace. Socialist policies provide for worker benefits such as vacation time, universal health care, and subsidized childcare without demanding central control of industry.

Examples from specific countries show how communism and socialism work in each:

China

Officially called the People's Republic of China, this country is ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of China. Power is divided between the National People's Congress, the president, and the State Council. The NPC is the single legislative body, whose members are selected by the Communist Party. The State Council, headed by the premier, is the administrative branch. The People's Liberation Army also wields considerable political power.

The current president of China (as of July 2018) and general secretary of the Communist Party is Xi Jinping. The premier is Li Keqiang. Many political commentators have noted that Xi is today strengthening his rule, becoming a strongman, and tightening his control over the country in a near-dictatorial rule reminiscent of Communist China's first leader, Mao Zedong, who held absolute and unchallenged authority over the country for decades.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is considered a constitutional monarchy and a Commonwealth realm. Its official name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Great Britain includes England, Scotland, and Wales). The executive branch of the U.K.'s government consists of a chief of state (Queen Elizabeth II) and a head of government (a position filled by the prime minister).

The legislative branch is made up of a bicameral Parliament consisting of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, while the U.K.'s judicial branch includes the Supreme Court of the U.K., the Senior Courts of England and Wales, Northern Ireland's Court of Judicature, and Scotland's Court of Session and High Court of the Justiciary.

Though the country is governed by socialist policies, such as a nationalized medical system where all citizens are given access to health care regulated by the state, the U.K. holds regular and free elections, and has a judicial system that is separate from the legislature and executive branch. Though the country is under the leadership of a prime minister, no single entity or party holds complete control over the nation.

Is Cuba Socialist?

Cuba, officially known as the Republic of Cuba, is in no way a socialist system. The country's constitution adopted in 1976 defines the state as a socialist republic, but Cuba's communist government was established when Fidel Castro came into power when he overthrew the country's then-dictator, Fulgencio Batista, after a three-year Cuban Revolution from 1956 to 1959. Castro installed a communist government that was friendly to the then-Soviet Union and ruled with an iron fist until in 2008, when he retired and installed his brother Raul in power. During the next few years, the government gradually loosened its tight restrictions on foreign travel and also began allowing some private economic activity among its citizens. 

The political future of Cuba is unclear as of summer 2018. Cuba's national legislature, the National Assembly of People's Power, is the supreme organ of power, where its 609 members serve five-year terms. The assembly elected Miguel Diaz-Canel in March 2018 as the country's president. He is the first non-Castro family member to rule the country since Batista's downfall.

There is some thought that the new president may institute reforms, but as of July 2018 there were no indications that any entity would supersede the Communist Party in authority. After he was elected, Diaz-Canel said, "There is no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle," alluding the the 1959 revolution and decades of communist rule.

Communism vs. Socialism: Comparisons

The listing below, adapted from Diffen.com, offers a summary of the differences between these two political-economic systems.

Philosophy

Communism: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Free access to the articles of consumption is made possible by advances in technology that allow for superabundance.

Socialism: From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution. Emphasis on profit being distributed among the society or workforce to complement individual wages or salaries.

Key Elements

Communism: Centralized government, planned economy, dictatorship of the "proletariat," common ownership of the tools of production, no private property, equality between genders and all people, international focus. Usually antidemocratic with a one-party system.

Socialism: Collective ownership, cooperative common ownership, economic democracy, equal opportunity, free association, industrial democracy, internationalism, material balancing.

Political System

Communism: A communist society is stateless, classless, and governed directly by the people. This, however, has never been practiced.

Socialism: Can coexist with different political systems. Most socialists advocate participatory democracy, some (Social Democrats) advocate parliamentary democracy, and Marxist-Leninists advocate democratic centralism.

Ideas

Communism: All people are the same and therefore classes make no sense. The government should own all means of production, land, and everything else. People should work for the government, and the collective output should be redistributed equally.

Socialism: All individuals should have access to basic articles of consumption and public goods to allow for self-actualization. Large-scale industries are collective efforts, and thus the returns from these industries must benefit society as a whole.

Private Property

Communism: The concept of property is negated and replaced with the concept of common ownership and usership.

Socialism: There are two kinds of property: personal property, such as houses and clothing, owned by the individual; and public property, which includes factories, and the means of production owned by the state but with worker control.

Social Structure

Communism: All class distinctions are eliminated in a society in which everyone is both the owners of the means of production and their own employees.

Socialism: Class distinctions are diminished. Status derives more from political distinctions than class distinctions. Some mobility.

Religion

Communism: Abolished: All religions and metaphysics are rejected. Engels and Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union's first leader, agreed that religion was a drug or “spiritual booze” and must be combated. To them, atheism put into practice meant a “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions."

Socialism: Freedom of religion but usually promotes secularism.