While once used interchangeably, socialism and communism now have discrete meanings and each term is open to various interpretations. Nevertheless, communism generally refers to the theories and ideas stemming from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their successors. At the crux of communism is a call for the abolition of capitalism—i.e., private ownership of the means of production and private profit—by force if necessary. After the communist revolution in Russia, Russian leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky further developed the tenets of communism as did Mao Tse-tung in China.
Socialism, on the other hand, is a political and economic approach that calls for state-owned businesses and state-controlled distribution of wealth brought about by democratic means. The doctrines of socialism also include demands for major industries, banking, utilities, and natural resources to be nationalized as well as for nationalized social services such as health care.
The word "socialism" was coined in 1832 by Pierre Leroux, editor of the Parisian journal, Le Globe. From then on, "socialism" took on many different meanings as the varieties of socialism grew and expanded, from western Europe to Russia, America, Asia, and Australia. It is mistakenly believed that Russians invented both socialism and communism and exported them, when in fact they borrowed these theories of political economy from western Europe and eventually developed their own versions of them.
Socialism, as distinct from "socialistic" ideas and practices that are evident as far back as biblical times, is a set of ideas, or theories, at the heart of which is a strong belief in social justice. All socialist theories are critical of wealth and the concentration of wealth in private hands; all of them advocate the elimination of poverty by equalizing the distribution of wealth, most often by some degree of collective (i.e., public) ownership. Only the most extreme socialist creeds have advocated the total elimination of private property. Because socialism also advocates some form of collective action, it can be defined not only as a theory but also as a movement.
The many varieties of socialism evolved in part from the disagreement on the means by which a more equitable distribution of wealth in society is to be achieved, a point on which no two socialist philosophies seemed to agree. Marxist socialism proposed the forceful establishment of a workers' dictatorship; conservative social democrats advocated parliamentary reform and trade unions; syndicalists favored a general strike of the workers; Christian socialists advocated a stringent application of the principles of the Bible (and also trade unions, or "associations," as they called them). Furthermore, no two socialist creeds could agree on why poverty existed or how it had come about in the first place.
In short, the goal of a more just society based on an elimination of poverty is shared by virtually all socialist theories, including communism; how to achieve that goal led to the evolution of many different varieties of socialism. Finally, to make matters more difficult, socialism in theory often differed significantly from socialism in practice. Marxist socialism (that is, communism) in theory espoused workers' control of the means of production; Marxism in practice, however, be it in Russia, Cuba, or Cambodia, involved a communist-led government taking control of the means of production. Ironically, this produced permanent poverty for the mass of working people.
While socialistic ideas and practices have existed for thousands of years (the biblical Jesus was highly critical of wealth, defended the poor, and practiced a communal lifestyle), modern socialism was not born until the Industrial Revolution arrived in western Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The degrading poverty of the factory workers was nothing new—poverty has always been around—but their crowding into cities and their wretched living conditions made their particular kind of poverty so much more glaring and difficult to avoid. In addition to this new kind of poverty were two other important elements that would give rise to modern socialism: widespread literacy and the critical spirit that was the legacy of the Enlightenment. The difference therefore between a modern socialist and pre-modern socialist thinking was in the attitude towards poverty: Jesus, for example, took for granted that there always would be poverty; a modern socialist questioned the necessity of poverty, was convinced it could be abolished, and had a program to achieve this goal.
Socialist and communist theories grew out of the events and social conditions of the late eighteen century and early 19th century. This was the period when the Industrial Revolution swept across Western Europe. The Industrial Revolution brought about the rapid expansion of industries through mass production. The industrialization of Western Europe, however, led to deleterious consequences as companies competed ferociously without regulation and exploited the growing class of industrial workers. As a result, the living conditions of industrial workers deteriorated substantially by the middle of the 19th century as poverty, squalor, and degradation grew.
Consequently, bitter critiques of private wealth and intellectual theories about poverty became especially frequent preceding and during the French Revolution of 1789-99. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was one of the earliest-known proponents of the state's responsibility for the equal distribution of wealth, but did not go so far as to advocate the dispossession of the rich. During the French Revolution, the supporters of the radical Jacobins in power demanded greater social justice and the equalization of wealth, but were not opposed to private property.
One of these French agitators, Gracchus Babeuf (1760-97), has frequently been cited as the "father" of modern communism for evolving a socialist creed (embodied in the Manifesto of the Equals written by a follower of Babeuf s) based on the belief that poverty was caused by class differences. The solution to poverty, according to Babeuf, was for the lower classes to overthrow the propertied class by force, establish themselves in power (i.e. create a "commonwealth" of equals), and proceed to distribute all property equally and hold it collectively. When Babeuf s secret organization, "The Conspiracy of the Equals," staged an abortive uprising in Paris in 1796, it was mercilessly crushed, his movement was outlawed, and Babeuf himself was guillotined.
Babeuf had been a poor, but highly literate, rural laborer, whose legacy was carried on by a number of disciples who were forced to live in permanent exile throughout western Europe. His followers came to be known as anarchists. The most famous names associated with anarchist socialism were August Blanqui (1805-81), who coined the term "dictatorship of the proletariat," and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65), whose famous dictum, "property is theft," identified what many anarchist socialists by then believed was the primary cause of poverty.
Anarchism was the most extreme socialism before Karl Marx's Capital, the bible of Marxist socialism, was first published in London in 1867. Long before then, anarchism would move away from its roots in rural poverty to embrace the cause of the exploited factory worker during the Industrial Revolution. Blanqui believed in a violent insurrection of the proletariat (factory workers), who afterwards would establish a dictatorship during which time the workers would dispossess the rich and distribute their wealth equally among all. Blanqui referred to socialism as "communism," and his anarchist followers were popularly referred to as "communists," although this communism had nothing to do with Marxism, which was a later development. Because anarchists rejected centralized government and some advocated violence, they were considered by the public to be dangerous radicals. They were in fact among a small minority of socialists.
There were at the same time, in the first half of the 19th century, far "milder" versions of socialism. These creeds had their roots in the Enlightenment as well, but were spawned largely by the misery and poverty engendered by the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. They disdained violence and did not believe in dispossessing the propertied.
A milder variant of socialism was embodied in the almost quaint ideas of Charles Fourier (1772-1837). This dreamy French intellectual disdained crowded cities and technology, advocating instead rural, self-sufficient agricultural communes, or phalansteries, where all property would be held in common, all inhabitants would do useful work but according to their own capacity and enjoyment (children, he reasoned, who loved playing in dirt, should be assigned garbage collecting), and adult love would be "free" and not chained by marriage. Women were to be absolutely equal and free (and could seek their own partners). Too poor to establish such a commune himself, many of his devoted followers brought his ideas to the United States, where they set up utopian communities in the Midwest. Similar ideas were espoused by the Welsh owner of Scottish factories, Robert Owen (1771-1858), whose followers also set up a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana.
Christian socialism, most often associated with Anglican author and activist Charles Kingsley (1819-75), developed in the 1850s and advocated a practical Christianity with the church involved in the improvement of workers lives. This version of socialism had the greatest impact in England, but also had a significant influence in Germany by the late 19th century.
The German Karl Marx (1818-83) would scoff at all of these socialisms as "utopian," although he would not admit how heavily they influenced him, especially anarchism. Marx's own variant of socialism was known as dialectical materialism, based on a dialectical model borrowed from the German historian Georg Hegel (1770-1831), who had taught at the University of Berlin shortly before Marx became a student there. The dialectic, acted out in a pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, gave form and logic to history, and explained how history evolved from one stage to the next.
Unlike Hegel, who believed ideas were as the primary in the historical process and that economic conditions stemmed from them, Marx held that economic processes—the production and distribution of goods and services—were the primary forces behind the historical process and economic conditions. However, like Hegel, Marx believed that history was evolving to a superior state, although Marx believed the superior state was greater balance between economic forces. Hence, Marx's theory is know as Materialism or Dialectical Materialism. The two central concepts of Marx's theory were the means of production (technology and know-how) and the relations of production (social institutions). Marx argued that the dialect works in such a way that a balance is temporarily struck between means of production and the relations of production. However, technology evolves more quickly than social institutions, according to Marx. The lag between the means and relations of production inevitably cause social revolution. Under the relations of production of the feudal system, social revolution sprang up of necessity because feudalism's market controls, property distribution, taxes, tariffs, and so on impeded the use of the productive forces associated with capitalism.
Marx's materialism owed much to the writing of the German intellectual, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72). In fact, Marx's dialectical materialism, fully expressed in his popular 1848 treatise, The Communist Manifesto, was thoroughly German. By borrowing the dialectical model (and logic) of Hegel, Marx set out to prove that the driving force throughout history has been the class struggle between the owners of the means of production (the thesis), and those who labored for them (the antithesis). In ancient times, the laborers were slaves; in Marx's own time, they were the proletariat. The tension, the class struggle, between laborers and private property owners, would be resolved only in the final stage of the dialectic. This would occur when the class-conscious proletariat united to overthrow the "bourgeois" or capitalist state by means of revolution. The workers would then proceed to establish a temporary dictatorship in order to forcibly dispossess the capitalist bourgeoisie of its property, and hence, of the means of production. With the means of production in the hands of the actual producers for the first time in history, a classless society would result. Consequently, the class struggle would end, and the final stage of the dialectic (and of history) would be achieved.
With occasional financial support from his friend and mentor Friedrich Engels (1820-95), Karl Marx was able to spend years doing research in the British Museum (he was forced into exile in 1848, spending the next 35 years in London, where he died). He buttressed his dialectical theory with statistics of industrial growth in Great Britain, the most advanced capitalist country, and with current British economic theories. One of these was promulgated by David Ricardo (1772-1823), who argued that labor was the source of all value. Marx interpreted this to mean that capitalist profits were really wages stolen from the workers. Marx predicted that capitalism in Great Britain would lead to greater impoverishment of the workers, with wages continuously falling; in time, capitalism would collapse. The result of his intensive study was his two volume work in German, Das Kapital, which was quickly translated into English (Capital) and eventually into Russian (it escaped Russian censorship because of its highly theoretical content).
Marxism (that is, dialectical materialism) is only an economic theory. Instead of being regarded in this light, it became in a few years a secular religion. A generation of educated Europeans were won over by the "scientific" logic of dialectical materialism, next to which all other existing socialist creeds seemed infantile and utopian. Until well into the 20th century, true believers of Marxism referred to it as "scientific socialism."
Since dialectical materialism is not a political theory, there is nothing about it that suggests the kind of totalitarianism with which the world has come to be associated with communism (a word Marx and Engels used loosely). Moreover, dialectical materialism or Marxism was put into practice for the first time in the least likely country, Russia. Marx and Engels would not have dreamed that a communist state would arise in an agrarian country.
Nonetheless, this economic theory of Karl Marx, together with other writings of Marx and Engels besides Capital, eventually led to totalitarian interpretations of Marxism: the proletariat and it alone would own all property (which is to say, the state); peasants, businessmen, professional people, would be dispossessed forcibly, since they were considered bourgeois, or petty bourgeois (as the peasants). Moreover, Marx and Engels had contempt for civil and political rights, which they also considered "bourgeois" and a means by which the bourgeoisie asserted its control. Finally, Marx adopted Blanqui's idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as a necessary final (but temporary) stage of the dialectic, when the bourgeoisie would be compelled to give up their property, and capitalism would come to an end. Hence the necessity of compulsion and of a dictatorship, however temporary, are ominous indications that dialectical materialism, even in theory, was antidemocratic. Marx would have scoffed at this, insisting that a worker's state, where all were equal, could only be democratic. Of the rights of minorities he had not a clue, while due process of law was "bourgeois."
Even before Marx's Capital was published and disseminated, factory workers in many countries in Europe were being organized into unions and demanding better working conditions and wages. Many labor leaders had been influenced by the socialist creeds popular before Marx, and had even organized a "Worker's International" (the First International) in which Marx himself had become briefly involved. It is not surprising that Marxism, wholly concerned with the factory worker and predicting the ultimate triumph of labor, would make a deep impact on labor leaders as well as dissatisfied intellectuals.
It was in Marx's native Germany that Marxist socialism made its greatest impact before World War I; German Marxism in turn would have enormous impact on the socialist movements in Scandinavia and Russia, as well as on the Polish, Bulgarian, and Serbian labor movements. The first Marxist party in the world was the German Social Democratic Workers' Party, founded by August Bebel (1840-1913) in 1868, at a time when Germany was politically divided and still largely agrarian (that would change after 1871). "Social Democratic" and "Socialist" meant the same thing to most Germans, and the name stuck. In the 1870s and 1880s, Marxist labor parties, or "social democratic labor parties," sprang up throughout Europe. Unlike the American trade unions which arose independently of political parties, European trade unions were established by labor parties; hence, labor unions as a rule were closely tied to a political party. More often than not, the party was Social Democratic (meaning Marxist).
By 1889, Marxism as a movement had made such headway that Social Democratic party leaders throughout western Europe gathered in Paris and established the Second Socialist International (the First International had expired in London in the 1860s). The Second International had a permanent headquarters in Brussels called the ISB (International Socialist Bureau), and held periodic congresses every two years. During its brief history, from 1889 to 1914, the Second International was extremely successful in its role as promoter of Social Democracy throughout the world. Its leaders, such as Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) of the German Social Democratic Labor Party, Rosa Luxembourg (1870-1919; who was Polish, but most active in the German labor movement), Jean Jaures (1859-1914) in France, and Belgian Camille Huysmans (1871-1968; head of the ISB), gave the world the impression that the "socialist" (that is, Marxist) movement was invincible.
In fact, it was far from that. With the spread of universal male suffrage throughout western Europe, heretical voices within the Social Democratic parties and trade unions were questioning whether the lot of the worker was really getting worse, as Karl Marx had predicted, and whether the ballot box would not be a better means of serving the worker than the violent overthrow of the bourgeois state. Furthermore, most workers in the Social Democratic trade unions were not very interested in class struggle or the theoretical issues of dialectical materialism. Finally, by 1901, a respected leader of the German Social Democratic Labor Party, Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), had broken with Marxism altogether. Having lived for years in England, he was impressed by what parliamentary democracy could do for workers who had the vote, and he observed that the quality of their lives and their wages had improved steadily over the years. Nevertheless, his break with Marxism was not a break with socialism. Rather, he was siding with a less dogmatic, more liberal socialism of the kind that had taken root in England, and that was best represented by the Fabian socialists (not a political party, but an eclectic group of men and women—George Bernard Shaw was one of their most famous members).
While Bernstein was condemned within the International and by his own party, his dramatic break with Marxism heralded a schism in Social Democracy between the right wing (or "revisionists"), increasingly drawn to parliamentary democracy and to working within the system, and the left wing. Leftists were the hard-core Marxists, usually from eastern Europe and the Russian Empire, where democracy was weakest. This split between the left and right wings of the Social Democratic movement affected all the members of the International, including the American Social Democrats (led by Eugene Debs and Daniel De Leon). With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, it became permanent.
The self-appointed leader of the left-wing Social Democrats was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). He headed the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party's bolshevik wing (which had split off from the majority party in 1903), which he already was calling the "Bolshevik" party. In 1920, Lenin demanded that any Marxist party which joined the Third Communist International (or Comintern, headquartered in Moscow) shed the name "social democratic" and adopt the name "communist" to distinguish it from those parties that retained the name "social democratic" after World War I, but had shed Marxism.
It is ironic that the first communist government to be established in the world was in Russia, at the its height World War I. In the Russian Empire more so than in the other belligerent states, the unbearable strain of total war had undermined the shaky political regime. When popular pressure forced the tsar to abdicate in March 1917, the provisional government which replaced him doomed the country to chaos because of its efforts to promote democracy and civil liberties in the midst of total war. The newly amnestied Bolshevik leaders took advantage of the liberal atmosphere to undermine the democratic regime. With the help of the paramilitary Red Guards, they succeeded in toppling the new liberal government by force on November 7, 1917.
Even before he became head of state, Lenin had shifted the Marxist position on the peasantry (which Marx and Engels had lumped with the property-owning bourgeoisie) in order to win the support of Russia's vast mass of peasants. He declared that the peasantry were future proletariat; backed by plentiful statistics, Lenin proved in his writings that urbanization and industrialization in Russia were inevitable, and that the peasants were proletariat in the making. Nevertheless, only the Communist Party, and not the peasantry-turned-factory workers, could lead Russia along the path to a workers' state.
This emphasis on the primary and exclusive role of the party distinguishes "Leninism" from traditional Marxism. Traditional Social Democratic parties before World War I had not considered the party to be the "vanguard" of the revolution, nor did this concept of the party's leadership role fit into the scheme of the dialectic. Lenin's variant of Marxism, however, caught on especially in economically backward areas, where there were few factories and, hence, almost no proletariat.
Under Lenin, all enterprises, large and small, including the banking system, were nationalized. While small farmers could keep their land, this exception was meant to be only temporary. The Communist Party under Lenin felt too weak to directly challenge the majority of Russia's population.
Lenin also believed in rule by terror, which meant the secret police. This, too, would have horrified Social Democratic parties before World War I. To Lenin (who was a lawyer by profession), terror was justified since Russia was the only "worker's state" in the world, surrounded by capitalist enemies.
The Soviet Union (Russia and its satellite republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia) officially came into being in the 1920s. Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1928, and assumed complete control in 1929, turning the Soviet Union into one of the world's most totalitarian countries. Democracy had no tradition or roots in Russia, and Soviet-style (Marxist-Leninist) communism took root subsequently in areas of the world where democratic traditions were weak or nonexistent. Communism held sway until its collapse with the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Communism has virtually disappeared 120 years after Karl Marx declared the imminent collapse of capitalism and is only loosely practiced in a few countries such as China, Cuba, and North Korea. However, China has been slowly moving away from communism and Marxism-Leninism since the 1980s, when the Communist Party declared these doctrines did not contain all the answers to political, economic, and social problems. Furthermore, North Korea has suffered from extreme poverty and has relied on aid from non-communist countries. Hence, its days as a communist nation may be numbered. Even Cuba considered economic reforms in the 1990s to stave off its economic problems stemming from the demise of the Soviet-bloc that provided aid and was a major trading partner.
Various forms of socialism or social democracy were adopted by Western European countries such as France, Germany, and Italy, which provided citizens with an array of social services. Advocates of socialism have striven to separate themselves as far as possible from communism and the communist regimes that established themselves under the name of socialism. Some have even parted ways with the principles of Marx and Engels, considering them idealistic and untenable. Instead, they focus more on practical and realizable ways of improving social and economic conditions and bringing about equality through democratic processes.
[ Sina Dubovoy ]
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Meyerson, Adam. "The Ash Heap of History. Why Communism Failed." Policy Review. Fall, 1991, 4.