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I've seen many people refer to communism and socialism as if they are the same thing, when they clearly are not. I'm aware of the difference and know there are many sources that explain it, so I'm not just asking what the difference is. Instead I'm asking for a good concise definition, something short and sweet which I can give to rapidly explain the key differences without loosing someone's attention or confusing them when I try to correct the mistake.

I wouldn't mind likewise having a few simple and informative answers ready for follow up questions about key confusion between the two. for instance the difference as to who owns property and who regulates businesses; and why they can seem so similar to a capitalist point of view; preferably without having to go into detail about horseshoe theory etc.

So in short the question is not about explaining the difference between the two philosophies to me, but rather how I can quickly do so to other capitalistic, especially others who are only mildly interested that I don't want to lose the interest of with too much detail.

  • This seems a question of philosophy, rather than an objective question about governments, policies and political processes. It may therefor may be off-topic under the help center guidance as to what is on-topic in Politics Stack Exchange. I'd suggest philosophy.stackexchange.com could be more appropriate place to search for answers. – Burt_Harris Jan 30 at 0:24
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    @Burt_Harris with all due respect, Communism is an important subject in politics and way too many questions about it here start out with an obligatory Communism vs Socialism argument in the comments. Might it not be worthwhile to see what comes of it? – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 30 at 1:06
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    Looking at the answers below, these ELI5 questions don't quite work well here. You just get some random guy's on the internet elaborate essay on marxism/communism/socialism etc. VTC as to discourage more questions like this... attracting more answers like this. – Fizz Jan 30 at 8:02
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    I've voted to close this question as opinion based. There is not a single encompassing definition for either socialism or communism that would not suffer debate or squabble. Without a concrete starting point, it is impossible to establish a method of differentiation. – Drunk Cynic Jan 30 at 13:33
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Communism is a society where the social production is not owned, where people give what they can and take what they need, where decisions about doing things together are made together.

Socialism is either:

Capitalism (that is a wage labour society with a small group of people dictating how things are made) with significant public or government ownership and strong workers movements, such as the UK or Soviet Union in the 1960s;

Or:

A society where organised bodies of workers own socially productive property, decide how to do things democratically, and decide who gets to enjoy leisure and goods democratically.

Economic behaviour:

In socialism (1) economic behaviour is capitalist, with small public “goods” available for near infinite consumption: health, parks, education.

In socialism (2) economic behaviour is collective and based on solidarity. However this giving is planned in the context of scarcity of some desired resources. In particular work is plentiful but labour is scarce. To a certain extent workers collectives still view actual humans as an economic resource.

In communism scarcity and property don’t exist (who would need 19 fridges?) and as such economic activity doesn’t exist: leisure and pleasure in doing are indistinguishable. Enough people desire to do dentistry or nursing or sewer engineering that their pleasures and productivity are sufficient for others enjoyment.

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  • This gets a +1 for mentioning the two different meanings that people currently seem to use "socialism" for. – user253751 Jan 30 at 11:50
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TLDR:

This assumes that the party you are looking at is already socialist or communist and you are trying to decide which:

  • left-of-center and keen on taxes, regulation and wealth-redistribution => Socialist. Typically, a mainstream party that is the national alternative to its right or center-right opponent. Can be called Social Democrat, depending on the language and country.

  • wants to nationalize private property, "tear up the system", and is keen on Marx => Communist.

Keep in mind that, as Communism's image has tarnished since the 60s and 70s and as highly state-managed economies have underperformed, parties that called themselves Socialist and were Marx-leaning have often moved to the center left, so the term socialism itself is in flux.

Basically, I know Communism when I see it and it is nothing like European style socialism.

Long version

Whatever other definitions everyone feels like contributing, I would like to remind people that Socialism, however it was used by Marx, is not a word limited to the English language. Nor was Marx writing in English.

It is important to differentiate actual political positions from terminology, especially when that terminology is multilingual, extremely complex and not rooted in the English language per se. Furthermore, attaching deep meaning to the names used by actual Marx/Communist-inspired parties mean little in practice as any of them is free to call itself Socialist, or Democratic, rather than Communist.

Parties like the French Parti Socialiste, PS or Spanish PSOE use the term to denote what (some) others insist on calling Social Democrat in English. They do not feel the need to add the social democrat bit, because Socialism does not automatically get equated to Communism in French or Spanish daily use, whatever English speakers claim. I.e. plain old socialism can mean social democrat, depending on the party, country and language. If you were to say Je suis un Social-Democrate in French, people would either not understand you or, if they did, assume you were a foreigner who didn't know French political terms.

Taking the Parti Socialiste, they've occasionally flirted with things like forced company nationalizations, under Mitterand. That didn't end well, so it's generally not proposed much nowadays. They've also allied with the PCF (Parti Communiste Francais) in its better days, but they were always distinct parties and left the PCF out of the juicy government posts under Mitterand. The PS also had no problem running fair elections and conceding defeats, something that tends to be problematic for Communist parties once in power.

In short, while they were well left of what, for example, a US conservative would prefer, they did not behave in any way shape or form like your typical Communist ruling party. They might, from a US viewpoint, be considered a tax and spend party, within a country, France, that is already more open to big government and taxes than the US. But Communist? Really???

On the other hand, the Partito Socialista Italiano seemed to flirt much more with plain old Communism. And the Dutch Socialistische Partij, when founded, was keen on Mao and Marx, but has apparently moved away from it.

Outside the US, calling someone a socialist seems a much more nuanced term than calling them a communist. And so it is when they self-identify.

UK's Labour party does not have Socialist in its name, but under Corbyn, expressions of sympathy for Chavez and Maduro would raise a red flag for me, much more so than any use of Socialism in the party's manifesto. The use of Marx or Communism in that manifesto would also bother me.

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    This does not match the (North European) usage I am familiar with. In that usage, social democrats are not socialists, because they fundamentally accept the free market. In their ideal society, the market would be mostly free, but there would be regulations to ensure socially desirable outcomes. Socialists in turn fundamentally reject the free market. They may see it as a necessary evil in the present society, but they would ideally get rid of it. – Jouni Sirén Jan 30 at 3:31
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    If parties are OK with the free market they'd go in bucket #1. Reason I prefer to talk about nationalization of private property is that quite a lot of people have doubts about free markets (which I like) but would not touch real Communism with a 10 foot pole. France is rather doubtful about free markets for example, but that doesn't mean the average voters likes real soviet-style Communism or approves of rulers like Maduro. Of course, if more and more reasons to constrains companies and individuals "for the good of all, you understand" are added, things do slip into Communism. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 30 at 7:20
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    @JouniSiren Socialists don't fundamentally reject the free market. What they do reject is the idea that the free market is always the best solution. In particular, where something is a public good and there is no ability to choose, socialists believe it should be nationalised. Examples would be energy supplies and transport infrastructure. This does not preclude a free market existing for private goods. – Graham Jan 30 at 9:05
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    Please don't use codeblock for anything that is not actual code. Emphasis should be used for technical terms, or use markers like ' to show the phrase being defined or discussed. – Nij Jan 30 at 9:35
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    It's not socialism if it doesn't want to bring the means of production under common control. Almost none of the political parties with "socialism" in their name remain socialist, but they might have been when they were founded. AFAIK the only socialist elected politician in the USA is Kshama Sawant who, along with her party, want to nationalise companies like Boeing and Amazon. What you're describing as socialism is social-democracy. I can't speak for French, but the question asks about English usage. – gerrit Jan 30 at 9:39
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TL;DR You asked for a short answer and a quick explanation, so I will give you one.

"Communism" is another name for "Marxism", which has its roots in "Socialism," but nevertheless is an offshoot from it.


Here's the longer answer:

Communism is defined by Lexico (Powered by Oxford?) as (emphasis mine):

A political theory derived from Karl Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs.

Therefore, Communism generally referrers to Marxism, that is, abiding by the writing of Karl Marx.

Socialism is defined as:

A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

Investopedia says the following about Communism:

Communism traces its roots to "The Communist Manifesto," which laid out a theory of history as a struggle between economic classes, which will inevitably come to a head through a violent overthrow of capitalist society, just as feudal society was violently overthrown during the French Revolution, paving the way for bourgeois hegemony (the bourgeoisie is the class that controls the means of economic production).

Following the communist revolution, Marx argued, workers (the proletariat) would take control of the means of production. After a period of transition, the government would fade away, as workers build a classless society and an economy based on common ownership. Production and consumption would reach an equilibrium: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Religion and the family, institutions of social control that were used to subjugate the working class, would go the way of the government and private ownership.

On the other hand, it mentions that Socialism actually pre-dates Communism:

Socialism predates the Communist Manifesto by a few decades. Early versions of socialist thought were articulated by Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), who was himself an admirer of ur-capitalist Adam Smith, but whose followers developed utopian socialism; Robert Owen (1771–1858); Charles Fourier (1772–1837); Pierre Leroux (1797–1871); and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), who is famous for declaring that "property is theft."7

And later:

Marxism emerged in this milieu. Engels called it "scientific socialism" to distinguish it from the "feudal," "petty-bourgeois," "German," "conservative," and "critical-utopian" strains the Communist Manifesto singled out for criticism. Socialism was a diffuse bundle of competing ideologies in its early days, and it stayed that way. Part of the reason is that the first chancellor of newly unified Germany, Otto von Bismarck, stole the socialists' thunder when he implemented a number of their policies. Bismarck was no friend to socialist ideologues, whom he called "enemies of the Reich," but he created the West's first welfare state and implemented universal male suffrage in order to head off the left's ideological challenge.

So it seems that Communism has some roots in Socialism, even being called "scientific socialism."

Wikipedia says the following about socialism:

By the late 19th century, after the work of Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, socialism had come to signify opposition to capitalism and advocacy for a post-capitalist system based on some form of social ownership of the means of production.

Communism, thus, has its roots based in Socialism. Consequently, the two are very similar. That's why the two are often used interchangeably. However, they are not the same.

In general, it might be helpful to think of Socialism as a more general philosophy and Communism as a specific offshoot (Marx's writings) of that philosophy.

As for the practical differences between the two, one source put it this way:

Under communism, the people are compensated or provided for based on their needs. In a pure communist society, the government provides most or all food, clothing, housing and other necessities based on what it considers the needs of the people. Socialism is based on the premise the people will be compensated based on the level of their individual contribution to the economy. Effort and innovation are thus rewarded under socialism.

The same source has a nice table breaking down the differences which is difficult to transcribe here, so I will omit it. But it has some nice differences.

One especially notable one is that in Socialism (emphasis mine),

Individuals own personal property but all industrial and production capacity is communally owned and managed by a democratically elected government.

whereas in Communism,

All economic resources are publicly owned and controlled by the government. Individuals hold no personal property or assets.

Another difference mentioned is in Communism,

Production is intended to meet all basic human needs and is distributed to the people at no charge.

whereas in Socialism,

Production is intended to meet individual and societal needs and distributed according to individual ability and contribution.

Another source notes another difference between Socialism and Communism:

Another key difference between socialism and communism is the means of achieving them. In communism, a violent revolution in which the workers rise up against the middle and upper classes is seen as an inevitable part of achieving a pure communist state. Socialism is a less rigid, more flexible ideology. Its adherents seek change and reform, but insist on making these changes through democratic processes within the existing social and political structure, not overthrowing that structure.

So Communism seems to be associated with a violent revolution, whereas in Socialism this isn't the case.

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  • What's wrong with this answer? – Chipster Jan 30 at 0:26
  • As a general practice, I don't downvote any comments ever, so it wasn't me, but if I had to guess, I would say that it is likely that people are uncomfortable with the term "communism" being spelled out as the equivalent to "Marxism", even though that is it's actual origin. – Hitek Jan 30 at 0:34
  • Not my vote either, but "Marxism" generally has a different meaning. I would say the most common meaning is that it's a variant of Communism, which eschews newer developments such as Leninism. In particular, that means Marxism assumes that Communism starts with a revolution in an industrialised country. Leninism was historically needed to explain why Marx was wrong and feudal Russia could still become Communist. – MSalters Jan 31 at 1:02
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Communism in its proper sense is an idealized (arguably utopic) vision of society that arises organically after all distinctions of class have been erased. It's the presumed end-goal of the Marxist trajectory: a state of perfect liberty unconstrained by accidents of birth and not limited by social strata. Like most idealized visions it is deeply under-theorized: Marx never spelled out exactly it would entail, socially or politically but held that would reflect the true nature of human interactions, which is suppressed under other systems.

Socialism is any of a number of systems in which the state controls, regulates, or commands the economy in the name and interests of the people as a whole, or of the working class in particular. Socialism can be right wing or left wing, depending on how such control and regulation is conceived and executed (e.g., the National Socialism of mid 20th century Germany, in which economic power was harnessed to the dictates authoritarian militaristic state). Marx saw socialism as an intermediary state where the power of private capital is dispersed or attenuated, and the state oversees production in order to ensure that workers are not exploited. However, Marx also thought that socialism would inevitable collapse into new authoritarian class structures — with the ruling cohort abandoning its role as steward for the people and setting itself up as a separate ruling class — which would themselves inevitably need to be overthrown. Socialism can include states that call themselves 'communist' or 'democratic,' where the actual practices of the state belie the aspirations of the name.

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In communism there are no money or shops. Ressources are divided so everybody get what is needed. Communism have never existed, but if it did, in its optimal form it would be like Star Trek.

Socialism is capitalism with high taxes where the income from taxes is used to benefit everybody.

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"Socialism" is any economic system in which the "means of production" (meaning factories, shops, transport systems etc) are controlled by the community as a whole rather than by a small class of owners. This is a very broad definition and there are lots of variations on the theme. Wikipedia has an overview.

"Communism" is one of these variations. It is based on the thinking of Karl Marx. Although Marx did not originate many of the ideas in communism, he was the one who first organised and systematised the ideas of other socialist writers.

Marx saw an inevitable historical progression of society through a number of stages, starting with "Primitive socialism" (i.e. tribal village life), through Feudalism, then Capitalism, then Communism. The transition from Capitalism to Communism would include a phase of the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in which the workers would seize both the means of production and the machinery of the state, effectively replacing the current power structure with their own. During this phase the workers would see a great rise in their standard of living because the parasitical owner class were no longer taking the products of their labour. Because the workers were now working for themselves they would also be able to organise their own work instead of having bosses order them about, which would lead to a further increase in efficiency. This would in turn lead the mechanisms of state control (police, taxation, money etc) to wither away as they were no longer needed. Hence the Dictatorship of the Proletariat would evolve into a classless utopia in which people would only work when they wanted to at whatever they wanted to, and everyone would have as much as they needed.

Of course it didn't work out like that.

Marx expected that the advanced capitalist societies, notably the UK and the USA, would be the first to see revolutions and a transition to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In fact it was the feudal Russia and China that saw the big communist revolutions. These societies successfully instituted the dictatorship of the proletariat. However the expected evolution into a class-free worker's paradise failed to materialise, and "communist" countries remained stuck in the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is this phase that most people equate with the word "communist".

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As demonstrated by the answers that have crystallised so far, there is no single, clear definition of either Communism or Socialism. This isn't surprising, since we are talking about ideologies and opinions, and it isn't limited to that end of the spectrum either; just think of the way a word like 'conservative' is used. So, since this is about opinion, here's mine:

Socialism and communism are more or less interchangeable - they both describe ideals about what is assumed to be the best way to organise society, things like owning most or all things in common, caring for the most vulnerable, running things that are important to all, together etc. Very vague, and that is the way it ought to be, otherwise it ends up being a dogmatic religion. From these opinions spring certain principles for how the economy should be arranged, of course, but as anyone with a bit of sense will point out, one must first and foremost be pragmatic about what actually works in the real world.

Ideology is very close religion, and that is what seems to have gone so spectacularly wrong with most of the so-called Communist regimes, that have mostly failed: those in power chose faith in their ideology over reality. We have seen the same pattern in religion - the Christian religion produced some of the most abusive and repressive periods in history, but more recently there has also been Christian societies that were open and tolerant: those were the ones that were willing to change with the circumstances. I suppose it also illustrates that for religion (or ideology) to be beneficial, it must be the servant, not the master.

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Quick and short answer:

Socialism is both a function of the state/government and political movement advocating for it. Social function of the government is part of its redistribution function, used to redistribute wealth to (often vulnerable) large groups of people. Pensions, unemployment aid, free healthcare, state provided education, free public transport, free kindergarten etc... those are all part of the same redistribution. Basically, if your government is providing some service or product to the population (without expecting direct returns in the form of work, such as paying firemen/ government bureaucrats/military) but is paying for it from taxes and other budget sources, that's socialism. Those policies are called socialist policies. Politicians advocating for them can be called socialists.

Communism is much more than that. Communism is political ideology which does use socialist policies a lot but is more concerned with class warfare, ownership of the means of production and so on.

Basically:

socialism - cares about how does government/state redistribute wealth to society, no matter how produced/ the sources or it

communism - how do we produce wealth/things in society (+ how do we decide what needs to be produced+ ) + how does government redistribute wealth to society

Thing in () is optional. Only the third part (redistribution) is the same for socialism and communism. Difference is, communism advocates that for proper redistribution, it is not enough to just redistribute products of labor, but state should control means of production as well.

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