What’s the difference between socialism and communism?

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One of our readers recently asked “What’s the difference between socialism and communism?” Our ‘Ask The Socialist’ column answers below.


All around the world people are talking about the chaos, crisis and cruelty of capitalism, and what the alternative is.

In response, political figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France are re-popularising some of the basic ideas of socialism.

Big business and their representatives are scared. They know that people everywhere are demanding better lives, and that means their profits and power are under threat. In Donald Trump’s recent ‘State of the Union’ address he said he was “alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism”. Even in Australia federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg gave similar warnings in a recent speech.

A worldwide survey by Ipsos Global Advisor last year showed half of the population supports socialist ideals. There was even higher support for socialist policies like the right to a basic income and free education. No wonder the ruling class are worried!

Often figures like Trump try to scare working class people away from socialism by raising the old bogeymen of Stalin and the Soviet Union, what they call ‘communism’. But genuine socialists never idolised the brutal regimes of Stalin and others like him. We do not accept that they were ever ‘communist’, or even really socialist, as they were not democratic.

Leon Trotsky, one of the key leaders of the Russian revolution, opposed Stalin and exposed how he engaged in the mass murder of genuine socialists. That put a river of blood between democratic socialists and dictators like Stalin.

The Stalinist regime itself came about in the midst of the deliberate choking of the Russian revolution by the imperialist powers. Britain, France, the USA and others invaded after the 1917 revolution to try and overturn the will of the majority. In the process they damaged the economy and society, creating the conditions for the rise of a privileged bureaucracy, who Stalin was chief of.

It was capitalist violence, not the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky which ultimately led to the crimes of Stalinism, misnamed as “communism”.

Capitalist opponents of socialist ideas tend to talk about socialism and communism as the same thing, but they are different. Unfortunately, even some modern-day socialists get things mixed up.

For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said it’s possible to be both a democratic socialist and a capitalist. But capitalism and socialism are two different types of systems. Under capitalism a tiny minority own and control the key parts of the economy, and from this flows their power.

While even the limited socialist policies, like those Ocasio-Cortez or Corbyn are talking about, threaten the profits of the capitalists, it is necessary to go further than just reforms if you really want to redistribute wealth in a more equal way.

Instead of just a few utilities or basic services we would need to bring all the major companies – perhaps the top 200 in Australia – into public hands. That way you could control the economy and start to plan it to meet everyone’s basic needs and create a healthy, happy and sustainable society.

Just as dawn is the transition of night to day, this new type of socialist society would be a transition from the poverty, misery and destruction of capitalism, to a higher form of classless society – communism. Under socialism classes would still exist but the development of science, technology, art and culture would free people from the rule of profit and begin to diminish class differences.

The productivity and abundance developed in a socialist society would lead to a situation where production was organised in the famous way Karl Marx once described: “From each according to their ability, to each according their need”. This kind of society is what Marx meant when he used the word “communism”.

Marx envisaged that a communist society would not be divided into economic classes. There would be no privileged ruling class that lived by exploiting the labour of everyone else. Without classes there would be no need for a repressive ‘state’ apparatus. The government of persons would be replaced by the administration of things.

In essence, socialism is a transitional form of society, a necessary phase as things develop away from profit-driven capitalism towards a world where people’s needs are prioritised. Communism is the end goal, a genuinely cooperative and classless society that would allow everyone to reach their full potential.


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