Socialism vs communism: you probably see these terms pop up in many places, from your social media timeline to the evening news. Many times, people use them interchangeably to talk about politics and economics. But these terms actually mean different things! They may seem similar, but there are actually some key differences between socialism and communism (and other similar forms of government!).
So what do these terms really mean? What are the factual differences between socialism vs communism vs Marxism? How do they compare to other political systems, like fascism and capitalism?
We know: these are tough questions! We’ve done the research to bring you credible answers to these complex questions about socialism vs communism and other political systems. In this article, we’ll give you a detailed guide to socialism vs communism, as well as the following:
- A deep dive into socialism, and a deep dive into communism
- A socialism vs communism chart with side-by-side comparisons
- A brief comparison of fascism vs communism vs socialism vs Marxism vs capitalism
When you’re done reading this article, you’ll understand the differences between socialism and communism, how each system works, and how they compare to other government and political systems.
Socialism vs Communism: A Quick Overview
Socialism generally refers to any social, economic, or political system that is based on public, social ownership of property and the means of production (such as mines, mills, and factories) and democratic control of business. The overarching purpose of socialism is to create more equality by ensuring the public--not private citizens--own the means of production.
In other words, socialism takes the aspects of society that affect everyone and brings them under the control of government, such as utilities, education, and healthcare. But the government doesn’t control everything: socialism also allows for private enterprise and business ownership, too.
Socialism is a flexible philosophy that has many forms that range from democratic socialism to communism that differ based on how much control the government exerts over social and economic systems. But the big takeaway is this: all forms of socialism are based on the common idea that the government—and by extension, the citizens the government represents—should own and regulate the aspects of society that provide for basic human needs.
In contrast, communism is a philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology that ultimately aims to establish a society based on the idea that all property, resources, and goods (aka the means of production) should be owned by the public. These things become communally owned--hence the name communism--and are distributed by the government since the government represents the people. In a communist society, private property, profit-based economy, and social classes are eliminated, and each individual is provided for according to their needs.
Just like socialism, there are different communist schools of thought that vary based on how many rights citizens have in relation to the government. But one view they all share is that capitalism and its two-class system (i.e. the working class/proletariat and the ownership class/bourgeoisie) is the root cause of society’s problems and inequalities. As a result, communism calls for an overthrow of capitalism and the social class system through social revolution.
The biggest similarity between socialism vs communism is that they are based on a similar core principle: to give power and control back to the working class people that build and sustain society. But while socialism maintains some form of private enterprise and ownership, communism abolishes that system and transfers social ownership to the government. In that way, communism is a more extreme form of socialism.
We’ll dig into more of the differences between these systems a bit later in the article (we’ve even put together a handy table for you). But first, let’s take a more in-depth look at both socialism and communism.
Socialism believes that a society's means of production--like health and education systems--should be owned by the public, rather than by private individuals.
What Is Socialism?
Below, we’ll go into the specifics of socialism, give you a brief history of the term, and provide some examples of socialist governments around the world.
Socialism: Overview and Definition
Socialism is a social, economic, and political doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership and control of property and natural resources. Those publicly owned resources are then managed and distributed by the government.
Like we mentioned above, there are different types of socialism, and they differ based on how much the government controls and how much is left to private industry. Some socialist systems will only give government ownership of social institutions that are considered basic human rights. Other socialist systems may eliminate the private sector entirely.
But why does socialism advocate for public ownership of property and goods? As an economic theory for how society should be organized, socialism states that the means of producing wealth should be controlled by the workers in a society, not by the elite or ownership classes. Socialists believe that the money made belongs to workers who make the products.
History of the Term
The contemporary term “socialism” has its origins in the early 19th century, coming from the French word socialisme. The word finds its roots in the Latin sociare, which means to combine or to share. It also has ties to the term societas, which is found in Roman and medieval law and refers to a consensual contract of fellowship between free people. These roots reflect the core philosophy of socialism: that the means of production and its profits should be shared among and controlled by the public.
The term “socialism” or “socialized” is often used by modern political parties and the media to describe political platforms, government policies, politicians, or even entire countries. But at its core, socialism is a type of economic system that is designed to eliminate inequality and improve quality of life by placing power in the hands of society’s workers.
Socialism has been around in some form since classical times, and its meaning has changed some over time. Below, we’ll briefly cover the two most important points in the history of socialism, namely socialism in the Industrial Revolution and in the 20th century.
Socialism in the Industrial Revolution
While socialist ideas date back much further, the earliest use of the term “socialism” used to refer to economic reform can be pinpointed in the 1820s and 1830s.
The modern term “socialism” was originally coined by French theorist Henri de Saint-Simon toward the end of the Industrial Revolution between 1820 and 1840. Saint-Simon and other prominent philosophers were the first to critique the poverty and inequality of the capitalist system that was ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. In response, socialist thinkers advocated the transformation of society into small communities without private property.
As a political movement, modern day socialism started with the revolutionary attitude of 18th century philosophers that advocated for the rights of the working class and pushed for social change.
As socialism rose in popularity throughout the end of the 19th century, movements split into two main groups: a reform movement, which advocated a social democratic form of socialism, and a revolutionary movement, which advocated uprising against existing capitalist economies in favor of communism.
Socialism in the 20th Century
During the 20th century, socialism began to spread throughout the world as socialist parties began winning elections.
For example, take Socialist Party of Argentina, which was established in the 1890s. It was the first mass socialist party in Argentina and Latin America. The British Labour Party--also socialist!--first won seats in Parliament in 1902. And in 1904, the first democratically elected socialist took office as the first Labor Party Prime Minister in Australia. These widespread elections of socialist representatives were the first of the kind on an international scale, bringing socialism into view as the most influential secular movement of the 20th century.
Socialism became more prominent following the international conflicts of World War I. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in Russia, led by philosopher Vladimir Lenin. Lenin and the Bolshevik faction of socialists overthrew the Russian monarchy and installed the first ever constitutionally socialists state, known as the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic.
Around the world, other socialist parties began to gain importance in their national politics. By the 1920s, communism and socialist democracy had become powerful political ideologies. It was also during this time that the key distinction between socialism and communism was solidified. While socialism allowed for, and even encouraged, a private sector within an economy, communism embraced its anti-capitalist foundations.
Denmark is an example of a country with a socialist government.
Examples of Socialist Governments Today
Today, socialist ideals can be implemented in almost any kind of government, because socialism is not tied to a specific form of government or political ideology. Socialism can be incorporated into democratic, republic, capitalist, and other systems of government as part of an economic system, domestic policy, or a political party’s ideology. In other words, a government doesn’t need to be set up in a special way for it to be “socialist.”
It’s important to recognize that “socialist” can be used to refer to a philosophy, form of government, political party, and economic system. This is why it isn’t necessarily accurate to refer to a country as socialist. In most cases, it’s probably more accurate to call a country’s economy socialist, or to say that a socialist political party is in power in a particular country. Some countries might have socialism heavily embedded in one aspect of their societal structure, but not necessarily in others.
Here are a few countries that incorporate socialism into their governing structure but still allow for private enterprise and ownership:
We can look more closely at one country that combines both socialist and capitalist structures: Denmark. This will help you understand what aspects of socialism look like in practice.
Denmark follows the Nordic Model, which refers to the economic and social policies common to the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
Denmark’s version of the Nordic Model fits the description of democratic socialism for two main reasons. First, it supports a comprehensive welfare state where things like healthcare and higher education are owned by the people and run by elected government officials. But Denmark also operates a capitalist, market-based economy that relies on private enterprise.
Denmark’s robust social benefits are funded by taxpayers and administered by the government. Denmark’s social benefits include free education, universal healthcare, and public pension plans for retirees. Additionally, 66 percent of Danish workers belong to a labor union, and in 2014, Denmark was the only nation to receive a perfect score for protecting workers’ rights on the International Trade Union Confederation's Global Rights Index. Because of these policies, Denmark is known for its high standards of living and low income disparity.
At the same time, Denmark has a capitalist economy. Private ownership and free trade--trademarks of capitalist economies--are heavily supported. Denmark offers strong property rights for its citizens and allows companies to do business without overwhelming government oversight.
So Denmark combines socialist policies that promote social equality with capitalist economic systems like those you would find in countries like the United States! The result is that Denmark has a low concentration of top incomes and low levels of inequality. It also ranks high globally for healthy life expectancy, generosity, and freedom from corruption. Denmark is consistently in the top 10 of countries on the World Happiness Report.
Communism believes that all aspects of society should be owned by the public so that everyone is provided for equally.
What Is Communism?
Now let’s take a closer look at communism. Like we mentioned earlier, communism falls under the umbrella of socialism because it also argues that the public should own and control a country’s means of production. Just like socialism, communism believes this philosophy lowers inequality and increases people’s quality of life.
However, communism takes this concept one step further in its belief that capitalist and class systems should be completely rejected in favor of total public ownership. In other words: the public should own everything to ensure a fair distribution of wealth, goods, and services. The government--which represents the public’s interests--manages these institutions, which include everything from schools, to hospitals, to copyrights or trademarks. Doing so eliminates inequality perpetuated by a class system where the workers’ labor builds the wealth of a very few.
To help clarify these differences, we’ll take a deeper dive into communism as an ideology, give you the history of the term, and provide some examples of communist governments today.
Overview of Communism and Definition
Communism is a social, economic, and political doctrine that aims to establish a society based on collective ownership. As an economic theory for how society should be organized, communism states that the socioeconomic order must be structured upon the ideas of common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.
The goal of communism is total equality between citizens, which is maintained by the government. Because the government represents the people, it is able to distribute the country’s collective resources in a way that ensures everyone has equal access to the things they need.
Communists believe that capitalism is the root cause of society’s inequalities, and that it has divided society into two diametrically opposed classes: the ruling class, or the bourgeoisie, and the working class, or the proletariat. According to communism, true equality can only happen when the working class rises up to overthrow the ruling class...and capitalism is abolished.
History of the Term
The contemporary term “communism” is derived from the French communisme which developed out of the Latin roots communis, or “for the community,” and the suffix isme, or “as a state or doctrine.” Thus, communism can be understood to mean “the state of being of or for the community.”
Because of this broad definition, communism can describe many different social systems, from the state system of entire countries to the organizing ideology of small, informal communities. For instance, some medieval Christian monastic communities shared their land and resources and were considered communist!
Today, the term “communism” or “communist” is often used by political parties and the media to describe economic and political organizations that are Marxist, totalitarian, or authoritarian. While sometimes these descriptions are apt, like in the case of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, the term “communist” can also be used as a misnomer applied to people or ideas that challenge capitalist ideologies. So for example, sometimes concepts like the Affordable Care Act are labeled “communist” not because they are actually communist, but because they advocate for a less capitalist approach to an industry or service.
Now let’s take a closer look at the history of communism. In the next sections, we’ll briefly cover the following important stages in the development of communism:
- Early communism
- Marxist communism
- 20th century communism
The idea of a class-free, egalitarian society first emerged in ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Plato incorporated communist ideals into The Republic, his famous dialogues on what makes a just society. The Republic describes an ideal society in which the ruling class serves the interests of the whole community.
Many of the earliest communist communities were based on the teachings of the Christian scriptures. Their model of communist living is outlined in the Christian Bible, which describes the early church in Jerusalem's communal ownership of land and possessions.
Communism also popped up in Puritan communities during the 17th century in England. This group, called “the Diggers,” supported the abolition of private ownership of land. Unlike modern forms of communism, which focus on urban and industrial life, communities like the Diggers were concerned with promoting communal ownership and use of land in agrarian and rural societies.
The French Revolution was one of the final major turning points in the development of communism before the 20th century. During this period, the French aristocracy lived lavish lives while the French working class suffered through unemployment, homelessness, and soaring food prices. The working class rose up against the monarchy, advocating for the abolishment of the aristocracy and equal redistribution of wealth among the French people.
Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and successful uprisings of the French people, communist ideas took root across Europe and East Asia in the 19th century and beyond.
Communism vs Socialism vs Marxism
In the 1830s and 1840s, the communist ideas of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels became popular with socialist thinkers and revolutionaries throughout Europe.
Marx and Engels were deeply disturbed by what they saw as the injustices of a society divided by class. They claimed that the subjugation of the proletariat/working class was inevitable under capitalism because in capitalist societies, the people who own systems of production end up controlling most of the wealth. Marx and Engels argued that under capitalism, the ruling class--made up of people like industry moguls and factory owners--would become richer while the working class struggled to make ends meet. If capitalism were replaced by communism, they maintained, these structural and systemic issues would be solved.
Marx and Engels wrote and distributed The Communist Manifesto in order to advance their vision of a revolutionary socialism that would unseat capitalism. Their purpose in writing the manifesto wasn’t to describe an ideal communist society, but to argue that the collapse of capitalism and uprising of the working classes were inevitable. To them, communism was the next step toward a more equal society.
It’s important to recognize that Karl Marx didn’t create communism. Marxism (this variety of communism) is popular, but it’s not the only type of communism out there. Leninism, Maoism, and anarchist communism are all different communist schools of thought, too.
However, Marx’s take on communism became very popular at the beginning of the 20th century, and many well-known revolutions of that period were rooted in Marx’s communist ideology. Because of this, Marx became one of the most influential proponents of communism during the 20th century, and that legacy still influences many people’s understanding of communism today.
20th Century Communism
After World War I, communism started to spread internationally. Revolutions based on communist thought occurred during this time, and the first communist governments were instituted in Europe and other parts of the world.
For example, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to overthrow the Russian monarchy. Lenin was a major supporter of Marx’s views of socialism and communism, and this perspective shaped his revolutionary ideas and the government he installed in Russia after the revolution.
Lenin believed that communism was the ideal way to run a society. So in 1918, Lenin’s political party--which was now in power--renamed itself the All-Russian Communist Party. This was the beginning of the Soviet Union, the most well-known communist state of the 20th century.
The emergence of the Soviet Union as the world's first communist state led to communism's widespread association with Marxism, Leninism, and the Soviet economic model. Other countries’ communist governments were modeled after the Soviet Union during the mid-20th century. These communist states included Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Albania, and Romania.
The Soviet Union was the premier communist superpower on the global stage for most of the 20th century. Because of the Soviet Union’s influence, communism was increasingly viewed as a threat to capitalism until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ongoing conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War plays a significant role in shaping people’s perceptions of communism today.
China is an example of a modern country that has a (mostly) communist government.
Examples of Communist Governments Today
There are several communist governments in the world today. These countries typically have a communist political party in power, and the government controls all aspects of the economic and political system.
One thing to keep in mind: there’s never really been a purely communist state. All of the communist governments that have existed have not accomplished the elimination of personal property, money, or class systems. This means they’ve never achieved the ultimate goal of communist ideology and, thus, can’t be considered purely communist states.
However, there are countries whose most prominent governing ideologies are communist. Today, communism exists in the following five countries:
- China, or the People’s Republic of China
- Cuba, or Republic of Cuba
- Laos, or Lao People’s Democratic Republic
- Vietnam, or Socialist Republic of Vietnam
- North Korea, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
We can look more closely at one country that has a communist government and a socialist market economy: China, or the People’s Republic of China. This will help you visualize what a communist government looks like in action.
In 1949, Mao Zedong took control over China and proclaimed the nation a communist country, calling it the People's Republic of China. China has been called "Red China" ever since due to the Communist Party's control, and the country remains communist today.
But China is not a purely communist country. It has other political parties besides the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) that aren’t expressly communist. China also holds local, open elections throughout the country. Because of the CPC’s long legacy, though, it rarely faces opposition from other political parties during elections.
Because China’s government is run by a largely unopposed communist party, a significant portion of its economy is government-controlled. However, China has opened up its economy in recent years and transitioned from a socialist economy to a socialist market economy, where private enterprise is allowed but heavily regulated by the government.
Unlike a pure communist state, China’s constitution recognizes private property as of 2004. Privately-owned firms generate a significant percentage of China’s GDP, and investors and entrepreneurs can take profits within parameters set by the state. China’s economy also supports international trade. Today, China is the second largest economy in the world.
Socialism vs Communism Chart: Key Points Comparison
Now that we’ve done a deep dive into the meaning and history of socialism vs communism, let’s condense these philosophies down to their core differences. Check out our Socialism vs Communism chart for a side-by-side comparison of these systems below.
To achieve equality among society’s members with the help of the state; to place more power and control in the hands of the people.
To achieve equality among all people by abolishing class and money, which will in turn create a post-capitalist, communist state.
Flexible—socialist principles can be incorporated into any state system, from a democracy, to a republic, to a communist state.
One-party, communist state—all aspects of society, including the economy, are owned, regulated, and run by the state.
Amount of Governmental Power
Varies—this depends on the type of state socialist principles are being incorporated into. In general, the government controls aspects of society that serve the best interest of the people.
Total—the government controls all means of production, which includes labor, entrepreneurship, capital goods, and natural resources, on behalf of the people.
Private enterprise helps fuel economy. There is some competition with state-owned industries.
Industries and markets are state-owned. Private enterprise either doesn’t exist or is very heavily regulated by the state.
Comparison to Capitalism
Attempts to address social inequalities by giving people collective ownership of certain aspects of society that provide for fundamental human needs (i.e. means of production). Can coexist with capitalism.
Breaks down class and social structures by abolishing ownership, which is central to capitalism. As such, communism stands against the central principles of capitalism
Socialism and communism are just two types of governments. Here's how they stack up to some other well-known government systems.
Socialism vs Other Major Political Systems
You now understand the differences between socialism vs communism, but did you know that these philosophies are often confused with other social and political movements? We’ll briefly clarify the differences between socialism, communism, and three other prominent philosophies: Marxism, fascism, and capitalism.
Let’s start with communism vs socialism vs Marxism. Marxism refers to the communist political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism argues for the dissolution of capitalism--including private ownership, social systems, and money--to eliminate inequality and improve people’s quality of life.
Marxism is a type of communism, but it’s not the only type out there. Communist systems like Leninism, Maoism, and Marxism are slightly different from one another, usually on the basis of how much--or what type--of control government should have over distributing communal property.
What about fascism vs communism vs socialism? Fascism is a political ideology that promotes authoritarianism and ultra-nationalism. Fascist states are run by dictators, which are individual people who run the entirety of the government according to their will. Dictators and fascist leaders forcibly suppress opposition and maintain tight control of society and the economy, usually through increased militarization.
Actually, neither communism nor socialism are considered fascist. That’s because fascism is all about giving power to one individual who controls everything, whereas socialism and communism want to distribute power to every citizen through collective ownership.
Having said that, many people mistakenly assume that both socialist and communist governments are always fascist. That’s due in part to two reasons. The first is that the Nazi party in Germany called itself the “National Socialist German Workers' Party.” Unfortunately, that means some people automatically assume all socialism is akin to Nazism, which isn’t true. (In fact, Nazis are in many ways opposed to socialism, which advocates that everyone should be equal regardless of race or class.)
The second reason has to do with the history of communism globally. Many--but not all!--communist governments have been authoritarian, meaning that one appointed leader wields governmental power and makes decisions for the entire nation. This isn’t an inherent characteristic of communism, but the history of authoritarian communist governments means that people sometimes believe that communism and fascism go hand in hand.
Finally, capitalism is an economic system based on private rather than state control of a country's trade and industry for profit. Countries that have a capitalist system can coexist with elements of socialism, but the free market remains mostly unhindered by socialist policies. In other words, the government controls little--if any!--of the country’s economic structures. Instead, it’s up to private enterprise to maintain the means of production.
In most cases, communism is incompatible with capitalism because the ultimate goal of communism is abolishing capitalism. But countries that embrace socialist social ideals can also have capitalist economies. France, Australia, and New Zealand are examples of countries that do this.
If you’re interested in government, don’t miss our article on democracies vs republics. We’ll explain all the key differences to help you understand the ins and outs of these governing systems.
There’s a lot more to learn about how the U.S. government works, too. For instance, did you know that the U.S. government is set up based on a checks and balances system? You can learn more about this balancing mechanism here. If you’re interested in a specific example of how this works, don’t miss our explainer on how the executive branch checks the judicial branch of government.
If you’ve found this article because you’re prepping for your AP Government exam, we have lots more resources for you on our blog. Here’s a huge list of awesome study resources, and our experts can even help you figure out how to answer those pesky FRQs.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.