The difference between socialism and communism

The difference between socialism and communism

Both socialism and communism share a similarity with regard to their core principles: the creation and maintenance of a social and economic system based on the common ownership of the means of production. However, despite this overlap, both have considerable differences.

Socialism vs. Communism: What Are The Differences Based on Classical Marxism?

Marxism, first introduced by German philosophers and sociologists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and expounded further by Marxist theories, provides a foundational basis for the modern definitions and applications of socialism and communism. Understanding the difference between the two also requires an understanding of the fact that Marx and adherent of classical Marxism often blur the difference between economic power and political power. Hence, to appreciate the difference between socialism and communism, it is also important to understand the role of the state and its political power or power structure, as well as the description of other economic systems, notably feudalism and capitalism, under classical Marxism.

According to classic Marxist theory, human history has several stages of development in relations to economic productivity and according to the power structure of the society. Note that power structure corresponds to the control and ownership of authority by a particular class to promote and protect their economic interest through the oppression of another class.

This power structure also translates to the primary role of the state in maintaining social and economic order by preventing and penalizing crime and violence that could disrupt existing economic activities and negatively affect the economic interest of a particular class.

During the feudal era, the power of the state belonged to the monarchy and was distributed further among the members of the noble class and priesthood or aristocracy through rights and privileges. This power gave them the capability to dominate the commoners or the peasants, laborers, and other individuals who lacked any significant social status. The state functioned to maintain this socioeconomic order.

Feudalism was later replaced by capitalism when commoners gained enough affluence to own and control the means of the production, thus becoming the bourgeoise class or the capitalist class who held substantial economic and political influence to overthrow the noble class. This was the case in France during the French Revolution. Nevertheless, under capitalism, the power of the state rests in the hands of the capitalists. The state primarily primarily functions to protect the economic interests of these capitalists through the promotion of property rights and economic competition.

However, classical Marxism argues that capitalism will eventually collapse because it is inherently oppressive as evident by the exploitation of the working class by the capitalists. The collapse of capitalism would lead to the emergence of a more suitable social and economic system. Classical Marxism introduced socialism and communism as the next developmental stages of the post-capitalist era.

Socialism marks a reversal in the power structure in which the working class holds the power of the state. The general role of the state in maintaining socioeconomic order remains the same. However, the state specifically functions to promote the economic interests of the working through the common ownership of the means of production, thus outlawing any attempts at private ownership and market competition. Socialism marks the demise of the bourgeoisie.

The power structure evolves further under communism. The state ceases to exist with the end of political power. The government still exists, especially its administrative aspects. However, there is no need for a state because the power structure that was observed in feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, has been removed due to the demise of social classes. Socioeconomic order is maintained through the use of a system that ensures that every individual has access to everything he or she needs. The promotion and maintenance of equal access and the common ownership of the means of production lead to the inexistence of crime and violence in the society.

A Note on Classical Marxism in Defining The Difference Between Socialism and Communism

Based on classical Marxism, the difference between socialism and communism centers on the existence of a power structure. Under socialism, the society needs a state capable of preventing crime and violence that endanger the idealized socioeconomic order. However, under communism, there is no need for a state due to the absence of social class and thereby, the inexistence of social structure.

It is also worth mentioning that Marx and Engels mentioned that socialism is a necessary precursor to communism. A socialist society is a necessary precondition of a communist society. In other words, the function of socialism is to set the stage for communism.

However, there is now a variety in the contemporary definitions of socialism due to its different interpretations and applications. The works of L. Peter and J. C. Docherty mentioned that socialism now has several versions, each having its specific principles and practices.

Some of the different types of socialism include state socialism that centers on the state ownership of the means of production, libertarian socialism that rejects the centralized control of the economy by a state, market socialism that mixes social ownership with a market economy, and social democracy that promotes social and economic interventions by a state within the framework of capitalism, among others.

On the other hand, while there have been societies that have positioned themselves as communist states, such as the former Soviet Republic and the current North Korea, the fact remains that communism has not been applied in real-world situations. This is due to the fact that these supposed communist societies have retained the role of a state based on a defined power structure. 


  • Marx, K. & Engels, F. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Germany
  • Peter, L. & Docherty, J. C. 2006. Historical Dictionary of Socialism. 2nd ed. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN: 978-0-8108-5560-1