While communism and socialism are inextricably linked, and are similar in a variety of ways, the two prove to be distinctly different as well. Both are founded on similar principles including a disdain for societal class divisions, and communism, by many accounts, is a more extreme version of socialism. While socialism exists solely as an economic system, communism is a political system that relies on a planned economy and the complete abolition of a centralized government.
Both systems have their roots in the thought of 18th century thinkers like French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Communist theory has caused controversy worldwide and is considered particularly dangerous in the eyes of capitalist free market societies. The supposed catalyst for many wars and revolutionary conflict, communism stands as the near complete antithesis of capitalism. Until the late 1980s much of Eastern Europe including the former U.S.S.R. remained under a communist system of government and currently only four countries across the globe remain true proponents of the communist party.
But what is communism? And how does it differ from socialism? For more information about the roots of these two compelling modes of thought, check out Introduction to Philosophy From Ancient Greece to Today by Saygin Koc. Course section six discusses the work of Hegel, which directly contributed to the work of Karl Marx, who along with Friedrich Engels developed the basic tenets of modern communism.
What is Communism?
Developed by German philosopher Karl Marx, communism is a political system that comes from the Latin meaning “common.” Based on the collective ownership of the production of goods, communism rejects individual ownership of industry, and promotes the manufacture of goods in order to satisfy the basic needs of the economy and the people. Production for individual profit or gain does not exist in communist societies, and the absence of social class exists to prevent worker exploitation by the upper ruling class.
Marx’s initial drive to create the basic tenets of communism began in the middle of the 19th century as he observed the existing capitalist system being used as a tool by the bourgeoisie to enslave the working class or proletariat. He believed that capitalism was an antiquated system that fed on the working class and increased the gap between rich and poor. Capitalism, in Marx’s eyes contributed to the degradation of society and needed to be replaced. His well-known tome, The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848 and written with Friedrich Engels sought to outline the basic faults of capitalism and educate readers on the principles of communism, Marx’s solution to the perceived problem of a free market society. The manifesto contained ten steps, known as the Ten Planks were intended as a test to determine if a society had successfully become a communist state. The manuscript led to the banishment of Marx, his wife, and children from both Germany and France, and he lived the remainder of his years in London beginning in 1849.
What is Socialism?
Also rooted in a need to close the gap between rich and poor, socialism has been practiced in a variety of forms since ancient times. While communism is considered a political system, socialism is a form of economic system. Many modern societies practice some form of socialism and promote the production and distribution of goods between the central government and individual organizations.
Unlike the communist system, socialism encourages the reduction, not complete elimination, of class structure. Along the political and economic spectrum, socialism lies somewhere between capitalism and communism, and does not promote a complete lack of government, but instead urges the formation of an environment of sharing and equality among its members. Developed in the early 19th century in Europe, early socialists, like their communist counterparts, pursued the end of social oppression and sought to reform society by diminishing the individual and promoting the collective or group. Socialism has existed in a number of different forms and today is practiced in many countries including the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. The United States Postal Service, Amtrak, and Obamacare are all government run services that promote the well-being of the people and do not collect a profit. To further explore the history of economics and the current state of the economy, check out Richard Duncan’s Capitalism in Crisis: The Global Economic Crisis Explained.
Why is Communism So Controversial?
If you grew up in the United States in the 1980s like I did, you’ll remember the constant threat of communism being espoused during the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, people across the globe celebrated the end of the Communist threat in Eastern Europe, and rejoiced in the continuing growth of a free market economy. Marx’s initial intention to rid society of the class struggles that he believed cause war and political unrest seem founded in a genuine desire to improve the world around him. If this is the case, why have countries around the globe fought for over a century to eliminate what they believe is a communist threat? Why is communism so controversial?
1. In a communist society, workers receive an equal part regardless of the level of work completed. Incentives for jobs that require increased training or those that are deemed more difficult, like those in medicine or law do not exist. All workers receive the same amount of compensation regardless of experience or job description. This labor structure (or lack thereof) has the potential to breed resentment among workers and in many cases has resulted in economic collapse due to worker rebellion.
2. Marx’s manifesto states that a true communist state completely eradicates the ownership of private property instead, all land is for public use. A communist state also seeks to completely deny citizens of inheritance rights.
3. Communist states also seek control the communication and transportation systems through federal means. Radio, television broadcasting, and movie production is completely government controlled under the rules of communism.
4. A basic belief in a capitalist free market society is the right to personal freedom and freedom of expression. Under communist principles, any person who speaks against the government or its system can have their property confiscated by the government.
While Marx’s intentions were to perhaps unite classes and eliminate the bourgeois, it is clear that a communist state seeks to eliminate all remnants of the individual. This abolition of the personal in favor of the collective or cooperative can be oppressive and has proven to be the downfall of many formerly communist societies. Today, only a few countries practice communism, including the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Cuba, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. While numerous other governments have socialist or mixed systems in place, China in particular, has a thriving economic system that provides for its people and stands as a world leader. So what are the perceived benefits of communism?
Perceived Benefits of Communism
1. While communism does not support private industry, it does support the role of the worker. Under the communist system, every member of society is given a job. The government owns all production and can therefore employ each member of society. In a capitalist economy, employment ebbs and flows. Lack of employment can lead to poverty, lowered self-esteem, and substance abuse. In a communist system, all citizens are provided work.
2. Theoretically a communist society promotes the equality of all people. Classes do not exist in a communist system, and therefore all citizens are equal. This eliminates the class struggle that Marx believed caused numerous conflicts including shortages and war.
3. Communist ideology seeks to eliminate child labor and encourage education for everyone. Each child is entitled to an education under communist principles.
4. Communism supports a lack of competition, which originates within its beliefs in equality for everyone.
How are Communism and Socialism Different?
While most modern modes of government are a combination of free market capitalism and socialist ideas, communism exists within a few corners of the globe. In his course How the Economy Really Works, Richard Duncan delves into the details regarding our complicated economic systems and how they function. While communism promotes a need to rid society completely of its class system and capitalism and instead focus on creating a cooperative environment, proponents of socialism encourage equality and non-discrimination among its citizens. While communists seeks to overthrow capitalist governments by any means necessary, socialists seek to increase public social programs and assist in the promotion of industry. Socialists do not believe that a radical overthrow of capitalist economies is necessary.
Proponents of socialism encourage both government established and private industry, while advocates of communism believe all forms of production should come from the state. Both systems have benefits and disadvantages, and while neither is used today in its original form, both are practiced in many regions throughout the world.
Essentially, no form of government or economic system is perfect. Even the free market system has its flaws. While many people believe communism to be “bad” and capitalism to be “good,” each system along the spectrum has its advantages and disadvantages. While communist societies seek to distribute an even amount of work and compensation to all of its members, capitalists seek to encourage the individual and individual success.
The initial source of communism’s early iterations came from Marx’s desire to eliminate what he viewed as exploitation of the working class by those in charge. His solution was to completely remove any sign of class or class system and replace it with a system that encouraged total government support by and for its citizens. David McWilliams, an economist and bestselling author offers an excellent discussion on economics and the history of the subject with Economics Without Boundaries. In it, you’ll learn about the global economy and how it works as well as the history of economics around the globe. Both socialism and communism contain many similarities and differences, and are products of centuries of thought and work. From Hegel to Marx, philosophers have spent countless hours trying to determine the best route for society. In the end, each civilization has to find it’s own way. There is no guaranteed solution to solving the problems of poverty and class distinctions, though numerous scholars and economists have tried.