The big difference between socialism and communism is this: communism is a repudiation of the way human economies have evolved up until now, and an attempt to replace all those systems and values with a new set of schemata, which naturally entails the establishment of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes to enforce, while socialism is primarily the recognition that human economies are as imperfect as human nature, and need to keep evolving in directions that will minimize misery.
These are huge generalities, of course, and will be easy to pick apart and criticize, since everyone will have a different sense of these terms from everyone else, and the range of the way we understand them will fall on a wide spectrum based on the many biases and perspectives the human condition allows. Please suspend judgment for a moment at least, and let me develop this thesis before you accept or reject it.
Capitalism is likewise generally understood on a subjective spectrum according to our varied beliefs and prejudices; still, the common theme of money is probably involved in almost all of them, though money is far older than our modern understanding of the term ‘capitalism.’ Its true (dictionary) defining condition, though, is more social than monetary – a capitalist society allows the means of production of goods to remain in private ownership. This limited definition leaves out a lot of the putative modern understanding of the concept, though. It doesn’t take into account the “industrial” scaling-up of labor and financial markets, or the move from individual and family ownership to shared ownership of the means of production, and the concomitant rise of stock markets. Nonetheless, it does indicate that the modern sense of the prevailing “first-world” economic system is influenced largely by differentiating it from socialism and communism, as envisioned by Dr Marx and others, since ownership of the means of production is first questioned by them.
This raises the question of why capitalism is defined primarily in terms introduced by communism, even though communism as a formal theory was introduced as a critique of capitalism? I think the answer is that capitalism was no one’s theory – Adam Smith and other early capitalist philosophers were describing a system that was evolving out of the natural human trends that resulted from the breakdown of the feudal system and the rise of the market factors mentioned above. The elements of trade, money, and private ownership were already very old, and only needed the expansion of the populace beyond what the fragmented feudal system could handle for a few communities to begin the scaling-up of labor and financial markets that led inexorably to the changes that birthed what we now call capitalism.
Many other social changes were going on at the same time, of course; the Christian religion was splitting into multiple schismatic divisions after a millennium of having only three or four main sects, and the Islamic civilization was expanding into Europe and elsewhere, and sea-trading as far away as China and the South Pacific. The overall tendency toward release from orthodox beliefs and practices engendered by the former, and the new trade goods and ideas introduced by the latter were synergized into the system coalescing among the emerging regimes of post-plague, post-feudal Europe. Although the academicians and statesmen of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had their influence, human nature and human circumstances were really in control, and that’s why I call it social evolution, to distinguish it from the rise of communism, which was driven by the aspirations of powerful people like Dr Marx, the Young Hegelians, and other academicians, and Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and other statesmen.
In the three centuries since the feudal guild/mercantile systems of northern Europe began to merge and morph into the modern economy of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism has continued to evolve. Continually, those who have maintained their control over the systems that feed, clothe, house, and divert the highly productive populaces of the developed world seek to squeeze as much as they can from society, until the society begins to break down, and continually the citizenry feeling the squeeze, and watching all the squeeze getting passed around to their “public servants” to undermine their interests, push to re-establish and maintain citizen control of their government and their lives. Continually, new paradigms, new rules, and new institutions are put in place to safeguard the values of personal liberty, responsibility, and free expression, and more just ways to balance resources and power, and continually those paradigms, rules, and institutions are attacked by those who just want to stick to the good old values of raking in vast quantities of wealth and resources and looking down their noses at people with humbler aspirations. In my country, the USA, where the burgeoning of the industrial economy has brought the most stable and long-lasting material gains, “I want to be rich” is our most common mantra; it is our true religion – the worship of material wealth. Still, the hard times have galvanized us to work together to see some of the most effective social welfare policies and practices put into place, even if other countries seem to benefit more from these models than we do.
What the new “mixed” economies that have evolved from the interaction of these and many other opposing forces appear to be is more and more socialist, without scrapping the underlying forms that evolved before them – capitalist socialism, you might say. Misery can’t be outlawed, of course, but our social safety net does mitigate a lot of the most predictable kinds of human misery, and will continue to evolve along with social conditions and the arenas of human striving in both our individually competitive and our collectively cooperative nature.
As long as we remain human, there will always be the temptation for those gregarious enough to become political leaders in our growing polities to establish more social control. In my parents’ youth, freedom-loving people fought the fascists, who wanted more social control for the powerful elite who controlled the people’s productive power; in my youth freedom-lovers fought the communists who wanted more social control in the name of protecting the workers’ right to the fruits of their own production. Now, the fascists are once more the threat, pushing their primitive, unevolved ideology of capitalism in the face of every indication that the modern economy is evolving into a blend of capitalist entrepreneurial endeavor and concern for social equity and justice.
It doesn’t matter to me if authoritarians are elite power brokers or socialist idealists; anyone pushing for expanded central control of society is the enemy. Ideologues: let it evolve!