In lay terms, Socialism and Communism are virtually interchangeable. A few people sometimes reserve communism as a reference to Soviet, Chinese, or Cuban-style economic policy, characteristically defined by a top-down power-structure, central economic planning, and a tiny cabal of party elites that plot the Revolution from a smoky, wood-paneled, underground conference room. Socialism, for these people, is whatever the Scandinavians are doing. In this post, I’d like to untie these terms from each other and–perhaps necessarily–from capitalism.
Academics do this by looking at the history of the socialist theory. They trace the course of theory as it develops nearly concurrent to capitalist economic theory in the last days of feudalism. This is a thorough way of distinguishing these broad and esoteric words, although it is a rather useless way since it is both objective and neutral and doesn’t position us–the would-be truth-seekers–in any place from which we might moralize and judge the competing theories. If you would like a thorough and unbiased history of the development of socialism and communism, I’d recommend Socialism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Newman. Otherwise, you have a few years of study ahead of you before you can begin to untangle the mess that is political economic theory. I elect to skip all that and instead base these fundamental definitions of respective theories by identifying their essence.
Now, I probably lost the post-modernists right there, but I maintain that essence can be distilled or more accurately implanted into concepts–even grand ones–through the same method we use for everything else: reasoning. I will simply argue for an essential quality of capitalism against socialism and communism against socialism. In this case, we’ll leave socialism more or less alone, letting it be defined negatively by the essences of the theories that surround it.
To start us off then, I have argued elsewhere that the essential quality of capitalism is the set of private property rights that give the nominal owners of property claim to the products of the same. This is a fancy way of saying if you own a hammer, a nail, and two pieces of wood, it doesn’t matter who drives the nail to fix the wood together, you still own the final product. This is as true for landlords as it is for business owners. It doesn’t matter if all the money to pay for a mortgage and the maintenance of a real estate property come from the renters who live there, the landlord is still the owner. It’s not private property per se that is the essential quality of capitalism, or markets, or freedom, or anything else. It is only this legal preference regarding property that is “owned” by one person or persons while “used” by another person or persons. Essentially capitalism is about renting property. The property owner rents the item to another to use for money, just as it is done in a sale, except they retain the ownership of the item being sold. The landlord rents the house to the tenant; the capitalist rents the means of production to the proletariat; the investor rents the use of money to the entrepreneur; the lender rents the use of money to the lendee; etc., this is essential capitalism.
Against capitalism, we can lay both communism and socialism. Both reject the essential part–renting–of capitalism. However, communism goes much, much further than socialism. Communism too has an essential element and that is the abolition of private property itself. Essentially communism is an economic system founded on common property. Common property is that which everyone–or perhaps more accurately, no one–owns. Common property is confusing precisely because it is common. The main problem humans have had to deal with in material relations is the problem of common property. The world is given to humankind in common, it did not come all neatly divided up and no one has something more than a mere nominal claim to any private ownership. So, it would be easy to conclude that this natural state is the best, and communism does just that.
There is only one problem with communism: we consume individually. I can’t both eat an apple and continue to share it with everyone else. At some point the apple becomes indistinguishable from my body, it is me, and if I am to have autonomy at all over my life, the apple must be said to be mine at some point. Private property then seems to be a material fact of nature, and communism an impossibility. But that is probably going too far. An apple is not like an idea. We can share an idea commonly without making it private, that is to say, I can consume an idea entirely without the need to exclude the rest of humanity from its enjoyment, everyone else can consume it as well.
Communism then is essentially an attempt to balance private needs against social provision, and while it is possible, the same way spinning a billion plates on sticks is possible, it is impractical. I’m not saying communism is undesirable, in fact, should the technology eventually develop in which each individual is the sole producer of each and all of their wants and desires, the only common production being for common goods, such as ideas, then communism might very well prove to be the best economic system since this situation would technologically eliminate the need for trade. But we’re not there yet. We need trade and not planning. I don’t know about you, but I can barely plan for my own wants and needs, which change and evolve constantly. If I can barely do it for myself, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing it for you, and even less for doing for thousands or millions. The best way to spin a billion plates on sticks at the same time is to have billions of individuals each spin their own.
Now my communist comrades are no doubt objecting that I have conflated private property with personal property. The difference they say is lying in what use the property is put to. There is a grave difference between the “means of production” and your toothbrush as the saying goes. I completely disagree. All property is usable. All property must be consumed individually. (Even fifty men pulling a rope, the space for each hand cannot be shared.) All property is labor-saving. All property is of this one kind. What my comrades mean to say, is that the essential quality of capitalism I mentioned earlier is not socially necessary or desirable. What they really mean is that capitalism is exploitation, and they are right. I have argued this several times elsewhere and so I won’t go into it here. But the point is that communism must ban the private ownership of the toothbrush as well as the means of production. In a world without trade, this is not really a problem, because no one else would need your toothbrush for other reasons. But in a world of trade, someone else is coveting your toothbrush and so common ownership of it would be a recipe for disaster.
Against these two we may now set socialism, which allows for private ownership but does not allow for rent. Albeit, this is a libertarian socialist conception of socialism. I will deal with intestine arguments about socialism elsewhere.