This installment of Ask Janus comes not from a reader, but from the comments section of about half the political articles I’ve read over the last week. Lately there have been a few common themes in what I’ll charitably call the “public discourse” about President Obama and his administration. Specifically, people have been throwing around accusations that he and others in his cabinet have are Socialists or Communists. My problem, and the problem other people are having with this, is that these two words do not describe the same thing. You’re either a Communist or you’re a Socialist – you really can’t be both.
So, today’s blog entry answers the question, “What is the difference between socialism and communism?”
The roots of communism and socialism can be traced back to the same proto-philosophy that evolved from Rousseau and Babeuf. It finally coalesced into a true ideology when the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 by Marx and Engels who argued for a perfect society in which there would be a absolute equality, all decisions would be made through direct democracy, there would be zero oppression, and everyone would have access to everything society had to offer. In other words, a land of milk and honey.
Unfortunately, there were a few minor sticking points with this dream: there were governments in place that rather liked the way things were and human nature which acted to undermine the practical reality of such a dream. To that end, those who took up the goals laid out in The Manifesto had to take a more pragmatic approach to accomplishing their goals. In the end, it wasn’t Marx and Engels who created the first collectivist state, but rather Social Democrats in Europe and the Soviets in Russia. The results of these first leaders resulted in the three very different ideologies we know today.
|“From each according to their ability, to each according to their deeds.”||“From each according to their ability to each according to their needs.”||“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, but an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself.” – Karl Marx|
|An economic system.||An economic and political system.||A philosophy / culture / way of life.|
|Rule by the proletariat.||Rule by the party.||No rulers.|
|Not incompatible with democracy.||Always totalitarian.||No government.|
|The government owns or controls industry.||The state owns everything.||Everyone owns everything.|
|Consumers nominally have a freedom of choice when competition is allowed to exist.||The people receive what the government gives them.||Everyone gets what they want.|
|Occurs as a result of mob rule.||Occurs as a result of dictatorship.||Does not occur in real life.|
|Viewed by Communists as a stepping stone to communism.||Viewed by Socialists as a bastardized version of the true worker’s paradise.||Is the aspiration of both Socialists and Communists.|
Communism (with a capital C) as we know it in the real world was first brought to us by the Russian revolution of 1917 which resulted in Lenin and the Soviets coming to power. Because of the nature of the revolution, the breed of communism established in the USSR was very, very different from the communism advocated by it’s creators. It was a totalitarian dictatorship in which the party had everything and the people had nothing. It did abolish private property and it did enforce collectivism, but the nature of the political system resulted in gross mismanagement of the economy. Instead of everyone having everything, no one had anything. This created an equality of sorts, but it hardly improved the situation of the workers.
Each of what I’ll refer to as “the revolutionary Communist movements” that followed resulted in the same sort of system. The workers united, overthrew the government, and were then placed under the control of either a dictatorship or an oligarchy in the form of a totalitarian single-party system. These Communists weren’t advocating a philosophy or an economic model, they were advancing a political agenda which included, at least in part, those philosophies and models into it’s regime.
Socialism as we know it came into being in the democratic parliaments of Europe between the World Wars. The oldest political party in Europe, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (or SPD for short) is actually still in power, currently leading a coalition with the CSU and CDU which controls the German parliament. The SPD also currently holds leadership of five of the eight state governments.
Socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats (themselves each a separate philosophy) do not advocate Communism or authoritarianism. Instead they work within a democratic system to produce changes that they believe advance the cause of the working class. Their main tools are inherent to the system. There are more workers than there are bourgeoisie. More people means more votes means control in a democratic process. By mobilizing popular support, they seek to control the government and thereby reform the free market system.
The reforms they push are designed to move the state closer to the ideal communism that Communists seek to create through revolution. State control of industry, minimum wage laws, mandated work hours, universal health care, welfare, tight controls on employment decisions, huge subsidies, and protectionist trade polices, are all aimed at transforming society through the power of the economy instead of through the dictates of government.
As strange as it may seem to an American reader, socialists actually work best in democracies and do not advocate dictatorship. Many of them are actually under the misguided impression that socialism and capitalism are not incompatible. They believe that free choice and free market forces can actually exist side by side with a degree of distortion to the free market which will result in a successful mixed economy that delivers both a fair and equal society and the prosperity and freedom of capitalism.
Socialism has traditionally been seen by communists as a steeping stone to true communism, the idea being to establish an intermediary system to more easily transition from a free market capitalism driven democracy to a communistic society in which there would be no need for government. Socialists, on the other hand, tend to view Socialism as both the means and the end – that is to say, Socialists tend to believe that socialism is a perfectly valid philosophy in it’s own right. To Socialists, Communism is an aberration. To Socialists, Communism is a corrupted form of true communism that is just as abhorrent, if not more so, than any other system.
So there you have it. In a nut shell, the difference between communism and socialism. In the name of the greater conservative movement, go forth and troll – but troll them with the style and grace that education brings. The next time a liberal demands you to explain it to them, do so, and make them look like a complete and total moron.