1970s >> 1978 >> no-886-june-1978

A Question of Definition (4) – Socialism/Communism

Socialism is the name we give to the new society we wish to see the working class establish, defined in our Object as “a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community”.

Actually, at the time our Party was founded in 1904, socialism was not the generally used name for the society Socialists wanted to see established. Even the early issues of the Socialist Standard referred to future society as “the co-operative commonwealth” (an Owenite phrase which is expressive enough), the “social republic” (from the French revolutionary tradition) and “socialist society”. The word socialism referred rather to the body of theory which criticised capitalism and argued for a new society based on common ownership and democratic control. This is the sense in the title Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (given by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue to the extracts from Engels’ Anti-Dühring which he translated into French and published as a separate pamphlet in 1880) and in the old sub-title of our companion journal the Western Socialist: “journal of scientific socialism in the Western hemisphere’’. It is of course a natural transition from socialism as the name of the doctrine to socialism as the name of the application of the doctrine, viz. the new society to be established. Nowadays the original situation is reversed: we use socialism almost exclusively to refer to the system of society and virtually only in the phrase “scientific socialism” to refer to the doctrine.

Socialism and socialist originated in both Britain and France in the 1820s and 1830s. In Britain, where it was popularised by Owen and the Owenites, it was used to describe a doctrine which favoured co-operation instead of the competitive individualism of capitalism. In France it had more the sense of a doctrine favouring reforms in the interest of the poor. Communism, on the other hand, originated in French in the 1840s as the name of the doctrine of those descended from Babeuf’s 1796 Conspiracy of the Equals who favoured the seizure of power in an insurrection in order to introduce genuine “equality” through abolishing private property. The German League of the Just also supported this doctrine and in 1847 changed its name to the Communist League, for which Marx and Engels wrote the famous manifesto of 1848.

Thus, in 1848, as Engels explained in a preface he wrote to the Communist Manifesto in 1888, communism was what Williams calls the “harder” word:

    “We could not have called it a socialist manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement, Communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.”

Clearly since in 1880 Engels was prepared to have his doctrine described by Lafargue as socialism a change must have occurred in between.

Williams suggests that in the 1880s in English socialism was the harder term because it, in whatever form, envisaged some reorganization of society as a whole while communism tended to be associated with small- scale experiments in common property, or “community of goods”, as in a number of agricultural colonies established in America (equivalents of today’s kibbutzim). There is some truth in this, but it is not as simple as that. The “community of goods” and “levelling” associated with the word communism were looked on with more horror by the capitalist class than the social reforms in favour of the poor associated with the word socialism. Thus when Sir William Harcourt, the Liberal politician, who served as Home Secretary and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated in the late 1880s “we are all socialists now” he did not mean that “we are all in favour of a community of goods”! And it is no accident that William Morris in the 1880s, when he wished to contrast his views with the reformism of the Fabians, chose to call himself a communist. Some anarchists such as Kropotkin were also at this time describing their aim as “free communism” in contrast to the State capitalism (which they misleadingly called “State socialism”) favoured by most of those who called themselves socialists.

“State socialism”, again, was a term used to describe measures taken by the State to try to aid the poor. The word socialism unfortunately in widespread usage has never lost its association with reforms and reformism. Hence Labour and similar parties in other parts of the world describe themselves and are described as “socialist”. This does not deter us from insisting that our use, to describe someone who works for a new society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, is not only the more adequate definition but also the more historically justified: those who introduced the word into English, the Owenites, favoured a co-operative commonwealth rather than reform of capitalism.

The word communism (which Marx preferred as the word to describe future society) has suffered a fate just as bad, if not worse. It has come to be associated with the State capitalist police dictatorships in Russia, China and other such countries. This goes back to a decision of the Bolsheviks in 1918 to change the name of their party from Social Democratic to Communist Party. They did this to distinguish themselves from the Social Democratic parties of the rest of Europe which had so shamefully betrayed the working class over the war. From then on communist has been used to describe supporters of Russia, inaccurately since it is not communism in its original sense of common ownership that they stand for but state capitalism.

Williams is quite wrong when he states that in the period 1880-1914 communism was used “as a description of an ultimate form, which would be achieved after passing through socialism”. This dates from after 1917 and was an innovation introduced by Lenin. Before then the only person to make such a distinction was William Morris but this was not taken up by anyone else in the Social Democratic or Socialist movements. It is true that the reformist Ramsay MacDonald in his book The Socialist Movement (1910) distinguishes communism from socialism, but as alternative and not successive societies and, as we have noted, this was a distinction made also by some anarchists. It is interesting that MacDonald distinguishes the two societies, as Lenin was to do, by the method of distribution: under “socialism” consumer goods would be distributed in accordance with work done, under “communism” according to needs.

Lenin’s innovation (to use a neutral term) was to make “socialism” and “communism” thus defined successive societies after the abolition of capitalism and to attribute this view to Marx (a gross distortion since Marx made no such distinction: he only distinguished a “first phase” of “communist society” when there would still have to be some restrictions on individual consumption—a reasonable assumption for 1875 but outdated today— from a “higher phase” when the principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” would apply, but these were phases of the same society based on common ownership and democratic control and not successive, separate societies).

As far as we are concerned, socialism and communism are exact synonyms, alternative names to describe the future society we wish to see established and defined in our Object. We don’t object to this being described as communism and us as communists but in practice we only use the words socialism and socialist.

Adam Buick