Communism and socialism: is there a difference?

A recent series of programmes on BBC Radio 4, ‘Britain’s Communist Thread’, looked at the fortunes of a political party established in Britain in 1920 with allegiance to the government calling itself ‘communist’ that had recently seized power in Russia. That party was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the government it supported was the Bolshevik one, led first by Lenin and Trotsky and later by Stalin. By the 1930s the CPGB had 60,000 members drawn from all parts of the British working class, from intellectuals to manual workers, and managed to get a small number of its candidates elected to parliament. Many of its members were convinced that a better and more equal kind of society that they called communism (or socialism) had or was being established in Russia under Stalin and they wanted the same in Britain. Most of them remained in the Party until the 1950s, for the most part unaware of the maniacal brutality that took place in Russia under Stalinism, since that only began to become widely known after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khruschev’s succession to the leadership of what had become the Soviet Union. Many drifted away, especially after the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising in Hungary, and then, even more, after the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to put an end to the so-called Prague spring.


Among those who remained, some still hung onto their support and admiration for the Soviet regime and slavishly followed the Moscow line, but others in the CPGB began to look elsewhere, to the kind of ‘communism’ advocated by parties in countries like Italy and France, so-called ‘eurocommunism’. In reality eurocommunism was a thinly disguised version of the kind of politics practised by the Labour Party in Britain and just an alternative ‘left-wing’ way of administering capitalism. But it led to a split in the CPGB and eventually its dissolution in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union itself had given up on its own ‘communism’ and moved to what looked as though it was going to be a Western-style parliamentary ‘free market’ capitalism. But some in Britain, despite the overwhelming evidence of the horrors of Stalinism and the dead end it constituted, could not let go of their attachment to the Soviet model and, with the CPGB falling apart, set up a new party along the old lines, though with a much smaller membership than before, the Communist Party of Britain, which still exists today with an estimated membership of 1,000.

Many of the people interviewed in the radio series had participated in these events and had first-hand knowledge of the mindset (or perhaps one might say the pathology) of those who stuck with the CPGB through thick and thin. But, whatever their current views, most of the interviewees now saw ‘communism’ as a compromised term, contaminated through its associations with what had happened in Russia. And this was the case even if they were not prepared to disavow some of the ambitions underlying what they saw as the ‘communist’ idea. Indeed, the CPGB itself, at a relatively early stage, seemed to have got that message and had begun to favour the term’ socialism’ rather than ‘communism’ to describe its ideas, as in its standard pamphlet ‘The British Road to Socialism’.


But despite any associations that these two terms may have, do they actually mean the same thing? Well, historically the answer to that must be yes, even if neither was necessarily used with the content often attached to them today. In the 19th century the two terms were widely used by political thinkers such as Marx and Engels interchangeably to mean a moneyless, wageless, classless world society of free access to all goods and services, characterised by voluntary cooperation and democratic organisation. A society based on the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ was how they described it. So a million miles away from anything that came to exist in Russia during Bolshevik/Soviet times (or more recently in countries like China or Cuba). Which is why, when such regimes or their supporters describe themselves as ‘Marxist-Leninist’, what we are seeing is a simple contradiction in terms. But none of this prevented the labels of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ being commandeered by the leaders of the Bolshevik takeover, in particular Lenin and Trotsky, who falsely claimed to be basing their politics on Marx’s ideas. When Stalin took over from Lenin, he confused things even more by not only using these terms to describe the regime he was the absolute ruler of, but by seeking to differentiate them with the claim that what was currently happening in Russia was ‘socialism’, which, once it had gone through the necessary stages, would lead to ‘communism’. It never did of course and couldn’t, because the whole premise of a dictatorship leading to any kind of classless democratic society was entirely flawed (and indeed Stalin, if he knew anything, must have known that).


However, the label of ‘communism’ stuck to the Soviet regime, so that, when that regime collapsed in ignominy, the label itself was, as one of the radio programme participants put it, ‘contaminated’. Of course, in terms of the substance of what passed as ‘communism’ in Russia, the Socialist Party would regard its demise as a positive development. But that also meant that it was a problematic term to describe the kind of society we advocate and so we tend to shy away from it. The same fate has not befallen the term ‘socialism’, at least not to the same extent. Though socialism may mean many different things to many people, at least it does not tend to automatically send out connotations of one-Party rule, autocracy and suppression of thought and ideas.

And this is perhaps a lucky twist of fate for the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), since, from our establishment in 1904, ‘socialist’ is the word we have normally used to describe our organisation and the society we exist and work to see established. It has often been suggested to us that, to be noticed more widely, we should change our name and use a different term to describe our objective, since, though not as compromised as ‘communist’, ‘socialism’ still does have negative associations in many people’s minds. We have resisted this both on the grounds that it has a historical significance that has not suffered the same fate as ‘communism’ and also because we take the view that, the more we make its meaning absolutely clear, the more its positive significance and content will become evident, especially as social development makes the need for the kind of society it points to increasingly urgent and necessary.


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2 Replies to “Communism and socialism: is there a difference?”

  1. Socialism meaning different things to different people is a good thing, in a way. It was while trying to find out what socialism is all about (and what socialist parties want) that led me – and many other people – to the World Socialist Movement.

  2. I’d dispute the suggestion that the CPGB had 60,000 members in the 1930s. Their membership figures only picked up again in the second half of the 1930s (after abandoning their Third Period position), and only reached 60,000 plus members during WW2 due to the popularity of the Red Army.

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