What is Socialism?
In general, socialism and communism prioritize equality of outcomes, whereas capitalism prioritizes equality of opportunity. It’s not entirely fair to pit socialism and communism versus capitalism, however, because the first two are socio-economic-political systems whereas capitalism is primarily an economic system, although it does require certain political arrangements. Another fundamental difference is that capitalism relies on voluntary transactions between individuals, whereas socialism and communism function via forced redistribution of property and income.
The first socialist theorists tended to be idealists who offered different visions of their advanced societies. Henri Saint-Simon, a native of Paris, envisioned a system in which the state controlled production for the benefit of all. His contemporary and countryman, Charles Fourier, preferred a decentralized state based upon small cooperative communities working together. Robert Owen was a Welsh factory owner who advocated for reform, becoming known for his efforts to improve working conditions for factory workers. He was also a promoter of experimental socialist communities that could sustain themselves. Owen eventually established a self-sufficient community in Indiana, but it was ultimately unsuccessful.
For communists, socialism is just an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism. Karl Marx, the thinker most synonymous with communism, dismissed the ideals of Fourier and Saint-Simon as utopian and argued that only through violent revolution could workers be free from oppression. Marx and his long-time collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. The manifesto contended that all of history is the history of the class struggle between the proletarians (workers and slaves), the bourgeois (middle classes and business owners), and the aristocracy. Arguably, the most noteworthy tenet in the manifesto is the call for the abolition of private property.
Now, let’s take a step back and look at these two ideas in comparison. As theories, both are concerned with ownership of the means of production and the distribution and exchange of goods. To different degrees, both favor state control of industry and production for the common good. Both ideologies advocate for the provision of social needs such as education, healthcare, and housing by the government on behalf of the people. Both also seek an end to hunger and poverty and to fulfill the basic needs of every person regardless of status.
Though they have all of these similarities, the two ideas do diverge in some important ways. Socialists don’t seek to fully eradicate private property or to create a stateless society. Generally speaking, socialism is a more flexible ideology which aims to reduce the worst outcomes of capitalism. Communism, on the other hand, seeks to overthrow capitalism though a violent revolution of the working classes. The goal of communism is a classless, stateless society, while socialism is content with the government merely owning the means of production and extensive redistribution of private property for the supposed good of the whole.
As with any ideology, there are multiple ideas and local variations within each theory. Socialism has encompassed quite a wide range of different forms over the years. It’s also important to note that there’s never been an entirely socialist or entirely communist state. No communist country has abolished private property, and no socialist country has nationalized its entire industry. The same can be said of the opposite end of the political spectrum. The sort of free market capitalism advocated by the Austrian or Chicago schools of economics, for example, has been effective at raising millions of people out of poverty, but has also continually been tainted by businesspeople using regulation to stifle competition and stuff their own pockets. As we look at some examples, we’ll see how the reality of implementing socialism and communism was at odds with the theory.
The Soviet Union stands as perhaps the most noteworthy example of communism applied to the real world. It began with the 1917 October Revolution, which was not the proletariat uprising envisioned by Marx, but an effort coordinated by a small band of political operatives and peasant soldiers. The Soviet Union was characterized by central planning, authoritarian rule, and violence against political opponents. Millions perished after Joseph Stalin’s disastrous attempt to collectivize agriculture, and many more were executed and imprisoned during the Great Purge of the 1930s. The Soviet Union emerged from the war as a superpower and rival to the United States, beginning a long period of mistrust and tension known as the Cold War.
In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reform). His actions were widely praised in the West but could not prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet leaders struggled to reconcile communist ideology with a rapidly changing modern world. Of course, there are still a handful of ostensibly communist nations in the world today.
For instance, the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 with Mao Zedong at its head. Maoism is a version of Marxism that was adapted to China, focusing upon the peasantry rather than factory workers. As in the Soviet Union, millions perished as a result of communist ideologies being put into practice, primarily in Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward.”
To varying degrees, the democracies of the western world have adopted some aspects of socialism without fully embracing it. In the years following the Second World War, social programs were seen as necessary concessions to stave off the threat of communism. Many European countries today could be termed social democracies. They maintain some amount of market enterprises but they also provide social programs ranging from education to healthcare.
Okay, now that we’ve looked at the ideologies of socialism and communism, let’s test your memory with a couple of review questions.
1. The main difference between socialism and communism is that communism calls for:
A. Social programs
B. The eradication of poverty
C. The abolition of private property
D. All of these
The correct answer is C, the abolition of private property.
2. The October Revolution led to the establishment of a communist regime in which country?
D. The Soviet Union
The correct answer is D, the Soviet Union.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!