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Communism, Socialism. Same Difference, Right?

MarxHow often have you, either in jest or out of frustration, referred to someone as a communist?  What about, horror of horrors, a socialist?  I will admit that I often besmirch my husband’s good name as a result of failure to appreciate the splendor that is the game of baseball.  The term “communist” is not infrequently hurled in his direction during baseball season.  (He’s a remarkably patient man in that respect). Seriously, though, these two terms are often used interchangeably and usually to cast aspersions on someone’s political ideology.  Scratch the surface, though, and the common understanding of these terms is fairly shallow.  That’s not to denigrate anyone’s intellectual abilities.  It’s simply that as Americans, we tend to have a visceral reaction to these terms.  A vestige of the Cold War, for those of us that experienced it.  (Another vestige of the Cold War, for your viewing pleasure).  This election cycle seems likely to bring these terms to the forefront again, particularly with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.  I, for one, am very interested to see how he handles running on a democratic-socialist platform.  It seems like a good time for a quick primer on the distinction between communism and socialism.

Both socialism and communism are primarily economic models.  The basis of both is a common ownership in the means of production.  Socialism is practiced widely in Europe and for some reason, Americans tend to equate socialism with healthcare. While certainly state ownership of the healthcare system (commonly referred to as a “one payer system) can be a component of socialism, the reality is that socialism is much more than social programs. There are a number of different variations of socialism, as there are in democracy (see this post).  State socialism denotes state ownership of the means of production.  When you hear of industries being nationalized (France and their semiconductors), this is an example of state socialism.  You can easily see how state socialism may lend itself to inherently non-democratic tendencies – Venezuela and the oil industry under Hugo Chavez.  Libertarian socialism, on the other hand, explicitly rejects state ownership as oppressive and seeks to place ownership in the hands of workers (unions) and prefers a weak, decentralized state. Communism takes socialism a step further, advocating for a society without classes, and ultimately without a state apparatus. Read the rest of this entry