Socialism vs. Communism: How are they Different?

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Recently, I was asked about the difference between Socialism and Communism. It’s an understandable question. Most people only understand this about Socialism and Communism: that they’ll both make you poorer. This is acceptable. At bottom line, it’s all anyone really needs to know. But understanding the differences is great for historical and economic comprehension.

It’s also a relevant question. For the first time in American history, a self-avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, is making a serious run for the presidency. Socialists running for President are nothing new, but they have always been vastly fringe candidates with zero recognition. This is different. Bernie Sanders is currently the No. 2 choice for the Democratic candidacy behind Hillary Clinton.

To begin with, let’s examine some history. Karl Marx was the father of 20th century Communism. His writings were used as intellectual justification for the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia and for other bloody scourges across the world until 1989. Alongside Vladimir Lenin, Marx is one of the most famous Communists of all time.

Most people understand that Communists usually consider free-market capitalism to be their ultimate enemy. However, Marx did not really write much on the supposed “ultimate enemy”. He never produced any systematic refutations to free-market economic thinkers of the day, such as David Hume or Adam Smith. Instead, Marx spent most of his career attacking other left-wing writers whom he referred to as “utopian socialists”. These were people who believed in an ideal and egalitarian society brought about by little more than convincing others that it sounded wonderful. “Hey, how about you share everything you have with strangers and agree to work hard every day for basically no compensation? It’ll be great!” This is usually a tough sell, unless you violently threaten people.

Marx spent most of his writing career refuting utopian socialism. To replace this idea, Marx came up with his own theory of how the perfect society would come about, which he called “scientific socialism”. This is where modern Communism was born.

Marx theorized that human history moves through successive stages, and that the development of these stages is inevitable. He postulated that the most important thing in society beyond anything else is the “mode of production”, which is defined as the collective ways in society which all people use to survive and subsist. He called the Mode of Production the “superstructure” – the foundation – for everything in society: family, ideas, culture, religion, whatever. It was all based on the Mode of Production.

The Marxist theory of historical development works like this: In human history, there was initially primitive communism. Basically, primitive tribal people who had no system of production at all beyond hunting and gathering, ostensibly sharing everything for the good of the tribe. Primitive Communism supposedly led to Feudalism, which is the system of Royalty, Nobility, and Serfs. Feudalism led to Capitalism, which is the current historical stage in which oppressive capitalist businessmen abuse workers for their own profit.

The next stage is the one to watch out for, where all hell breaks loose: Capitalism leading to the inevitable violent revolution of the “proletariat” – the working class – which will overthrow the oppressive capitalist system and impose Socialism, which Marx defined as the “dictatorship of the working class”.

This is the system wherein the new socialist government abolishes private property and free-markets, replacing it all with shared ownership of production and common ownership of all property. This is all enforced, of course, at gunpoint. Eventually, this was supposed to produce the final stage wherein the socialist government would eventually “wither away” as human society accepted socialism without needing to be forced. This stage was “Communism”. It is the final stage of Marx’s theory: a step-by-step linear process culminating in perfect Communism, in which all historical development would cease. All people would live in perfect Communism henceforth and forever.

Any rational person should read the description of this theory and come away with a few burning questions.  First of all, how can Marx know that any of this is true? How can he know that “this type of society led to that type of society”, and that it was all inevitable? There is no way to prove any of this.  Marxism has always suffered from famously poor epistemology. Second, by what mechanisms do any of these changes take place? This was perhaps Marx’s biggest weak point. He never produced any systematic works outlining or designing any methods in which stages progress. What he needed to do was write a book saying “Alright fellas, this is how the whole thing is supposed to work…”All he ever wrote was, “It’ll happen. Trust me.” But how? He never outlined his vision. Third, he never identified why Communism would be the final stage of history, and why there would be no further developments. Why couldn’t there be another revolution and another progressive stage of economic production? Why end at Communism? I guess we’re supposed to take him at his word. Fourth, who really constitutes the “working class”, anyway? Marx vaguely alludes to the working class as mainly laborers in factories, but never clearly defines what constitutes the working classes. Fifth and finally (for the moment): How does the government “wither away” in the transition from Socialism to Communism? In this sense, Communism was anarchistic: it was supposed to be a society so perfect and egalitarian that no government would be necessary. But how was this supposed to happen? If there’s one thing we know about politicians and bureaucrats, it’s that they love the Triple-P: Power, Perks, and Prestige. So why would they willingly give up power, perks, and prestige to allow for the withering away of the government? Why was this inevitable? Once again, Marx never answered this question.

Theoretically, there has never been an actual “Communist” country. Not even the Soviet Union. In fact, the USSR never officially claimed to be Communist. Throughout its existence, the USSR steadfastly maintained that it was a Socialist country, not Communist. This was even in its name: The United Soviet Socialist Republics. Faithful to Marxist theory, the Soviet government claimed to be in the Socialist stage, the “dictatorship of the working class”, which was working toward actual perfect Communism. This is what justified their oppressive and tyrannical governing style: it was all for the greater good of society and eventually would pass anyway.

This, in a nutshell, sums up the modern history of Socialism and Communism. So, let’s answer the question of what differentiates Socialism and Communism.

Socialism is when the government owns the means of production, meaning that all factories, farms, stores, whatever, are controlled by the State. A modern political socialist believes that all enterprises in society should be controlled by the State, which will ostensibly run business and production for the good of all members in society.

However, a modern socialist is not necessarily a communist. A communist is someone who believes in the Marxist theory of historical development and the ultimate victory of perfect Communism without government, which Marx referred to as “the withering away of the State”.  They believe this is inevitable.

In contrast, socialists do not believe in the withering away of the State, or any of Marx’s theory. In fact, most socialists react with abject horror at the notion of a society without government, or even just small government. To a socialist, the government is the only major force for good that exists in human society. More realistically, I think most socialists react with horror at the thought of not having a cushy government job, but that’s another story.

Bottom line: A communist believes in a society run by bureaucrats in order to bring about a perfect utopia without government, while a socialist simply believes that a society run by bureaucrats is itself the best end for all humanity. If you were to ask Bernie Sanders if he is a communist, he could say “No” and probably be telling the truth. Either way, both ideologies will plunder you and your family as best they can. Both will demand your total obedience at gunpoint. Both are equally screwed-up and wacky.

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