What's the Difference Between Socialism and Communism?

By: Dave Roos  | 

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, propaganda poser
This 1953 Soviet propaganda poster shows (from left) Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Apic/Getty Images

The Soviet Union was the world's first communist country, so why was its official name the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)? Are socialism and communism actually the same thing?

Yes and no, says Norman Markowitz, a history professor at Rutgers University who has taught a course on the history of socialism and communism for the past 40 years.

"'The Communist Manifesto,' published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, became the foundation of both socialism and communism," says Markowitz, but there are clearly differences between authoritarian communist regimes like the Soviet Union and China, and far more democratic forms of socialism practiced in countries like Sweden, Canada and Bolivia.

To understand the differences between socialism and communism, we have to start with their common enemy: capitalism.

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Capitalism and the Class Struggle

Marx and Engels viewed the entirety of human history as a "history of class struggles." In ancient Rome, there were patricians, plebeians and slaves. In feudal societies, there were lords, apprentices and serfs. In the 18th century, political and economic revolutions in England, America and France had done away with feudalism and replaced it with capitalism.

"By the 1820s and 1830s, capitalism had produced a world of progress and poverty," says Markowitz, meaning that the Industrial Revolution and the creation of free-market economies had greatly benefited the wealthy classes, who owned the factories and farms (the "means of production"), while leaving the average worker even worse off than the feudal serf.

Marx and Engels divided the modern world into two classes: the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production, and the proletariat or the working class. Capitalism, with its emphasis on cheap labor, had created an ever-widening gulf between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, a problem that could only be fixed by completely dismantling the politico-economic system that created it.

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The Rise of Socialism

What's important to point out is that Marx and Engels weren't the first to have these ideas. They were the latest in a long line of economic and political theorists who all identified as socialists.

Karl Marx (with beard) and Friedrich Engels, pressroom
Karl Marx (holding newspaper) and Friedrich Engels (behind him) stand in the pressrooms of the publication Rheinische Zeitung which they jointly edited.
Bettman/Getty Images

Socialism as a movement began in the early 19th century with thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Disgusted with the inequalities created by capitalism and competition, early socialists proposed the creation of workers' collectives with shared ownership of property, farms and factories.

"From the 1820s through the 1840s, there were various different socialist movements that attracted workers, farmers and alienated intellectuals," says Markowitz, "and all kinds of plans and programs to establish socialist collectives."

Owen, a wealthy Scottish industrialist, even founded such a community called New Harmony in Indiana in 1825, which eventually failed.

Socialism, both then and now, advocates for cooperation rather than competition, by opposing an unrestricted market economy. Under a socialist system, citizens pay high income taxes in exchange for free access to government-run programs and services. In some socialist models, all industry and means of production are state-owned, while other models allow for private ownership of businesses with public control of certain sectors like health care, energy, education and transportation. The goal of socialism is to create a more egalitarian society.

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Communism as 'Revolutionary Socialism'

Marx and Engels were fierce critics of the earlier "utopian" forms of socialism that were "doomed to failure," in their words, because they were based on the naive belief that the class struggle could be resolved through peaceful means.

"Marx and Engels believed that eventually the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would create a crisis in which the capitalist system would need to be abolished and replaced with a socialist system," says Markowitz. "It wouldn't be a utopian system, but a system in which the working class have the political power."

"The Communist Manifesto" was a socialist call to arms. In it, Marx and Engels argued that the only way to end the class struggles that had defined history was through a socialist revolution. After the revolution, society would be ruled by a "dictatorship of the proletariat." Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie called the shots, but a government ruled by the workers would put the workers' interests first and not those of a wealthy elite.

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From Marxism to Leninism

For Marx and Engels, communism was the most advanced form of socialism. They saw the evolution of advanced societies as starting with capitalism, moving to socialism and finally reaching the ultimate goal of communism. Under proletariat rule, the communists would abolish private ownership of land, farms and factories, and hand all control over to the state. Housing, medical care and education would all be free, and every worker would have a job.

In a way, Marx and Engel's vision of a truly communist society was also utopian. They believed that at some point the state itself would cease to exist, and the workers would simply share everything. As Marx famously wrote: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

"In that higher stage of communism, there would be general equality and general abundance," says Markowitz. "People could do whatever they want without harming others. They would be genuinely free."

But Marx and Engel's version of revolutionary socialism, also known as Marxism, was never really put into practice. Instead, the world's first communist revolution happened in an unlikely place, Tsarist Russia, and its political mastermind was Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin speech
Vladimir Lenin delivers a speech from a car in Red Square to the general military training troops, 1919.
K. A. Kuznetsov./Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lenin was a Marxist, but he put his own twist on communist theory. Lenin was a champion of the workers, but he wasn't confident that a "dictatorship of the proletariat" would spontaneously form after the revolution. In place of a "dictatorship" elected or appointed by the workers, Lenin preferred a dictatorship of the Communist Party.

Under Leninism, all power was put in the hands of a political elite that controlled all aspects of Soviet economic, cultural and intellectual life with the goal of creating a more equitable socialist society. In reality, Leninism slipped into authoritarianism and totalitarianism with violent crackdowns on dissent or opposition.

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Socialist and Communist Countries Today

The ideas put forth in "The Communist Manifesto" inspired generations of political thinkers and economic theorists. Some of those individuals formed socialist political parties to win power by democratic means, while others, like Lenin and Mao Zedong, launched communist revolutions. The result, today, are countries and governments that identify as either socialist or communist or both!

Scandinavia is home to a cluster of democratic socialist countries. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have elected socialist democrat parties into power, and their legislatures have passed laws establishing expansive "welfare states." In a socialist welfare state, citizens pay high taxes, but enjoy generous social services including free education (including college), free health care, retirement pensions, paid parental leave, subsidized housing and more.

"While the traditional liberal model of democracy only emphasizes individual liberty, the social democratic model, according to its proponents, stresses both liberal and egalitarian ideals," wrote John Patrick in "Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide." Critics of democratic socialism, he added, would claim that "positive state action to provide egalitarian social programs requires extensive redistribution of wealth and excessive government regulation of the society and economy." This, in turn, would minimize the principles of individual liberty.

It's important to point out that in democratic socialist countries, private ownership of business and free-market capitalism are also allowed to exist. And while socialist parties are currently in power, they are not one-party governments. Other political parties are allowed to campaign and run for office.

Crown Princess Victoria, Prime Minister  Stefan Lofven
Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden (C), Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven (R) and others pose ahead of a bilateral meeting on Stockholm's candidacy for the 2026 Winter Olympics Games, in 2019. Sweden has a democratic socialist government but still retains a monarchy.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images

That's not the case in so-called communist countries like China, Cuba and Vietnam, and wasn't true in the former Soviet Union, either. Those nations are one-party regimes where the authority of the Communist Party is unquestioned and the party chooses government officials, not the people. While there is no real democracy in these countries, capitalism has made significant inroads, particularly in China and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, just to keep things confusing, all of the countries that we call "communist" still think of themselves as socialist, just different flavors of socialism.

"China is developing its own model of socialism that's very different from the Soviet Union," says Markowitz. "China's model retains power in the hands of a government controlled by the Communist Party, but it's also created a capitalist sector that's become the second biggest economy in the world over the last 40 years."

The truth, says Markowitz, is that there has never been a truly "communist" country in Marx's sense of the word, just as there has never been a true democracy. "These are ideals that one works toward and struggles to achieve."

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