Economic Theory

Socialism or communism? A note on the terminology

Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards was once asked by an interviewer whether he ever got bored with some of the old Rolling Stones songs. (I can’t get no) Satisfaction, for example, was first released in 1965, but the Stones are still playing it today.

Far from it, Richards replied. A song isn’t finished just because it’s been recorded. Songs keep evolving for long after, and some songs are never truly finished.

I suppose something similar is true of books as well. Some books are never truly finished. There are always things that you could add or elaborate on in greater detail, additional angles that you could explore, additional critiques that you could address, and so on. And yet, at some point, it has to go to the printer.

My recent book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies is no exception. It has been printed, but it is far from finished. I will therefore use this blog to sporadically address comments and questions that readers, both sympathetic and unsympathetic ones, are raising.

(Terms and conditions apply. This excludes “Who funds you?” and “Get a haircut!”)

Last month, I addressed the myth of “Scandinavian socialism”. Since then, a couple of readers have claimed that my book was conflating “socialism” with “communism”, and that these were two quite different things. This point has been raised not just by critics, but also by people who very much agree with the book’s main arguments, and who just think that I should have framed it a bit differently.

So let’s have a look. What exactly is “communism”, and how, if at all, does it differ from socialism?

In Marxist theory, “communism” is simply the hypothetical final, most evolved stage of socialism. Socialism is the system that will be built immediately after the revolution. Communism is the system that socialism is supposed to grow into, over time.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines socialism as:

1:            any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

2a:          a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

b:            a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

3:            a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done. [Emphasis added]

Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary defines socialism as

1              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.

1.1          Policy or practice based on the political and economic theory of socialism.

1.2          (in Marxist theory) a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of Communism. [Emphasis added]

And in Leon Trotsky’s words:

“The communist structure cannot […] immediately replace the bourgeois society. The material and cultural inheritance from the past is wholly inadequate for that. In its first steps the workers’ state cannot yet permit everyone to work “according to his abilities” […] nor can it reward everyone “according to his needs” […] In order to increase the productive forces, it is necessary to resort to the customary norms of wage payment – that is, to the distribution of life’s goods in proportion to the quantity and quality of individual labor. […]

[S]ocialism and communism are […] the lower and higher stages of the new society.[Emphasis added]

Consequently, the Soviet Union never described itself as “communist”. It described itself as a socialist state working towards communism, as did all of its allies, and as did the non-aligned socialist states. No country ever described itself as “communist”. But there were more than two dozen that described themselves as “socialist”, and that also met the above-quoted dictionary definitions of socialism.

Look, I really don’t want to engage in linguistic pedantry. The way we use words in practice sometimes deviates from the way the dictionary defines them, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as it is clear what is meant. For example, a lot of people refer to the Soviet Union as “communist”, because, well, it was governed by a communist party. That’s not what I do in the book, but I do not have the slightest problem with that usage, because I know what they mean.

What we need, however, is some consistency. If you want to describe actually existing socialist states as “communist”, go for it – but then, I’d like to know what you mean by “socialism”. Because the non-dictionary usages I’ve come across fall into, broadly, three categories:

  1. Some people use “socialist” and “communist” more or less interchangeably.

  2. Others associate “communism” with the likes of the Soviet Union and North Korea, and “socialism” with the likes of Sweden and Denmark.

  3. Others use “communism” in the sense of “a state-run economy combined with a one-party dictatorship, which suppresses civil liberties and human rights”, and “socialism” in the sense of “a state-run economy combined with a parliamentary democracy, which protects civil liberties and human rights.”

I don’t have a problem with No. 1. In fact, it coincides with the way a lot of self-described socialists and self-described communists use the terms. Listen to the Novara Media podcast “Socialism vs Communism” with Ash Sarkar, who, as the whole nation now knows, is literally a communist, and Owen Jones, who, as the whole nation has known for quite some time, is literally a socialist. Despite the “vs” in the title, there is not a single thing those two disagree on, in this podcast. At least in their case, socialism is literally communism, and communism is literally socialism.

The problem with No. 2 is not that it deviates from the dictionary definition, but, as explained in my previous blog, that it is used inconsistently. If you consider Sweden or Denmark “socialist”, you also have to consider Britain socialist (or at least, very, very close to socialism). You cannot, on the one hand, claim that you want radical social change, and at the same time, hold up Sweden or Denmark as your alternatives, because those “alternatives” are simply not sufficiently different from Britain.

The big problem with No. 3 is that it is essentially just another way of saying “That wasn’t real socialism; real socialism has never been tried”. Whether you claim that Stalinism and Maoism were “socialism in name only”, or whether you claim that they were an altogether different ideology that you label “communism” – it makes no difference in the end. In both cases, you are claiming that your ideas have never “failed”. You are claiming that it has just never occurred to anyone to combine socialist economics with a liberal perspective of human rights.

And that is exactly the fallacy that I’m addressing in the book. Socialism never turns out the way Western socialists want it to turn out, and every time that becomes apparent, they change the labels. “That wasn’t socialism – that was state capitalism!” “That wasn’t socialism – that was the rule of a self-serving bureaucracy!” Or now, apparently, “That wasn’t socialism – that was communism!”

Same fallacy, different words. Don’t get hung up on the words. I know what you mean. You know what I mean. So let’s focus on the ideas, not the terminology.

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