By Erwin Marquit
I recently received an e-mail message in which the sender asked for an explanation of the difference between socialism and communism. Here is my reply.
In Marxist theory, communism refers to a stage of societal development in which the question of ownership of the means of production is no longer relevant. The means of production are managed in accordance with wishes of the people as a whole through their chosen representatives.
The production product is distributed on the basis of need. It is assumed that the productive capacity is developed to the point where people can merely take what they need or, in case of temporary shortages, some method of apportionment has been set in place on the basis of social need.
Socialism is viewed as the transitional stage between capitalism and communism, but a stage that already reflects the establishment of property relations such that the means of production and their product are under the control of the people who do the work. This labor may be provided in employment directly associated with the productive process or indirectly in jobs relating to the needs of society as a whole (education, health care, civic administration, etc.).
Under socialism the distributive principle, as formulated by Marx, can be summarized as: "From each according to one's ability, to each according to one's work," that is, remuneration is based on quantity and quality of labor contributed to society. The corresponding distributive principle under communism would then be: From each according to one's ability, to each according to one's need.
On the other hand, your question may have referred not to the political-economic distinction between socialism and communism, but to the principal political distinction between those considering themselves non-Marxist socialists (or social democrats) and those considering themselves communists (such as in the case of the Socialist parties and Communist parties in the industrialized countries). Since communists also refer to themselves a socialists, I shall use the term social democrat to refer to the a noncommunist socialist.
In Marxist theory, the government of a country has two characteristic components. One component, referred to as the state, is the principal coercive force that sustains the class character of the property relations that dominate the economy. The other is the administrative component regulating other aspects of social life such as ground and air traffic, fire protection, food safety, environmental protection, and education.
Although these two components are conceptually distinct, the property relations that dominate the class character of the state also dominate the administrative component. I think the briefest possible answer to the difference between social democrats and communists is that the former regard the state as a neutral institution accommodating the interest of labor and capital within the existing capitalist economy, with socialism being put off to some vaguely future epoch.
Communists, on the other hand, view the state as a class institution, the social function of which is to maintain the stability of the existing property relations dominating the economy (capitalist property relations in the case of a capitalist economy, socialist property relations in the case of a socialist economy).
Recognition of the class character of the state is also of particular importance today in countries with mixed economies such as Cuba, Vietnam, and China. As long as the interests of the working class remain dominant in the state, such countries can implement policies that will guarantee that the socialized sector of the economy dominates the course of economic development.