I've read various explanations of socialism and communism, but they aren’t clear. Such phrases as "owned by the community," for example, sound vague and ominous to me. Would you consider defining and differentiating these two things at your website?
Since most of the people who sling the terms “socialism” and “communism” are influenced by Karl Marx, let’s begin with how he used these terms.
Marx viewed all government as the rule of some class over the others. Under the state of affairs he called capitalism, productive resources such as tools and factories are privately owned, and the government, he said, is a committee of the class that owns them – called “capitalists,” because productive resources are called capital.
Opposed to the capitalist class is the proletariat. The proletariat is the working class, understanding this term to mean those who are employed by the capitalists -- not, for example, independent farmers or small craftsmen. Marx expected that when the industrial working class realizes the true state of things, it will rise up, the tables will turn, and the government will be used by the working class to suppress the owning class -- and eventually to suppress all the other classes, including those independent farmers and small craftsmen -- and confiscate what they own. This he called socialism, which he said will be a “dictatorship” of the working class over the surviving remnants of the other classes. He did not understand socialism as a goal in itself, but as a transitional stage on the way to communism.
In the culmination of socialism – that is, under communism – everyone will be a worker. All the other classes will have been completely eliminated. About how this will work, Marx was vague. When he said that the state will “wither away,” it is highly unlikely that he meant that there would no longer be a ruling apparatus, or that everyone would live in benign anarchy. What he seems to have meant is that this ruling apparatus will no longer count as a government, because it won’t be the rule of one class over the others. Rather it will be the rule of the workers over the workers themselves. We can call this a society of a single class, or we can call it a “classless” society just in the sense that there are no more class divisions.
Since as Marx uses these terms, no country has achieved communism, in the strictest sense there are no communist countries. He would say that what we call a communist country is a socialist country making the transition to communism, and that what we call a communist party is an organizational tool of the industrial working class, helping to bring this transition about. Empirically, such countries are totalitarian, meaning that they deny the right of any form of social organization to exist independently of the state. Churches, families, schools, trade unions, political parties, youth leagues, crafts guilds, neighborhoods and so on – all such forms of association are either absorbed into the state, subjugated to, or turned into its tools.
Sometimes people speak of “democratic” socialism. In one sense, Marxist socialism can’t be democratic because it is a dictatorship of the industrial working class -- that is, of the rulers who claim to act for that class. The sorts of rights, liberties, and protections against government that we associate with constitutional democracy would either not exist, or else be in the process of disappearing.
In another sense, though, a Marxist might call socialism democratic because in it the dictatorship is exercised by the class that is in the overwhelming majority – again meaning the rulers who claim to act for that class. So from a Marxist point of view, if you will pardon the oxymoron, socialism is a majority dictatorship, or a democratic dictatorship. And you will notice that countries with Marxist governments do typically call themselves “people’s democratic republics.”
In yet a third sense, a Marxist might conceivably call a particular stage of socialism democratic. He might consider it a good idea to preserve the institutions of constitutional democracy just for the time being – just so long as elections and legislatures and such things can be subverted to advance the socialist program. So he might say “I am a democratic socialist,” meaning that he wants to run for office under a socialist banner – but with the intention of abolishing the other parties once socialist power is secure. In the same way, a socialist might allow limited private ownership of capital for the time being, but only under tight government rules and surveillance, and with a view to its eventual abolition. That is what China does -- limited private ownership of capital was reinstated there because sole state ownership was working out so poorly – though China remains a totalitarian one-party state.
Both before and after Marx, the terms “socialism” and “communism” have sometimes been used in non-Marxist senses too, so let’s glance at these.
Before Marx, some people used the terms for any of the various ways of life attempted by voluntarily organized agricultural and handicraft communes (something of which Marx himself was contemptuous). Depending on the type of commune, members sometimes owned their land and tools in common, sometimes lived in shared dwellings, sometimes practiced group marriage, and sometimes raised their children collectively (abolishing the special relationship between parents and children). Many such experiments have been tried in the last few centuries, some more radical and some less. Typically they have been small and short-lived. The most successful (relatively speaking) have achieved their longevity by compromising with their principles.
After Marx, especially since the mid-twentieth century, some people have come to use the term “socialism” as a synonym for social democracy, also called the welfare state. In social democracy we find multiple parties, some state ownership of capital, some private ownership of capital (but under tight restrictions and with a high degree of state interference), high government benefits, high taxes to pay for all of that, and a very large bureaucracy to run all of it (making those benefits expensive). Some Marxists view this sort of “socialism” as a form of their own sort of “socialism” – in other words, as a possible path to communism. Other Marxists find it unacceptable, because they think it buys off the industrial workers and takes the wind out of the revolutionary sails.
Non-Marxists who favor that system usually like it either because of the government benefits they expect to receive at someone else’s expense, or because they perceive it as more equal. Depending on how equal people are required to be, the bureaucracy of confiscation under such a system has to grow continually, because people who are unequal in talent, ability to learn, family stability, and willingness to work tend to end up unequal no matter how equally they start out. Since continually taking away the fruits of labor discourages people from making an effort, over time such systems also have difficulty maintaining economic growth and keeping people employed. They also undermine the economic incentives for getting and staying married, because easy government benefits give people the option of being married, in effect, to the government itself.
In our own day, saying that one favors “socialism” sometimes has still another meaning. It can be a way of signaling that one sympathizes with some or all of the various forms of identity politics that resemble Marxism but substitute race, sex, or “gender” for economic class. Sometimes the label “socialist” is also bandied about just to say I am against everything bad and in favor of everything good, much the same way some people used to use the label “Christian.”
And yes, you’re right. In our politics – I am not here speaking of agricultural and handicraft communes -- whenever a socialist says things would be “owned by the community,” he means it would be owned by the government claiming to act for the community. Whenever he says “all resources would be equally shared,” he means there would be no more private property, the government would decide what you need, and what you have worked for would not be yours.
Needless to say, the possible contributions of private property to the common good are ignored or denied in such views, but that is a story for another day!