Friedrich Engels on the Difference between Socialism and Communism

Engels Communism Pamphlet

This morning I posted up a few extracts from Friedrich Engels’ Principles of Communism, published by Pluto Press. The Principles of Communism was the first draft of the Communist Manifesto. Unlike the Manifesto, it’s short – only about 20 pages or so, laying out the essence of Communism in the form of a catechism – short answers to particular questions.

Florence, one of the great commenters on this site, posted this remark in response to the piece:

Not having a copy of the Engels text to hand, I think many would be interested in his thoughts on how socialism and communism differ. It is at the heart of many misunderstandings at the moment!

This is a really big issue, and whole books have been written about the topic. Here’s what Engels says in the pamphlet:

24 How do Communists differ from Socialists?
The so-called Socialists are divided into three categories.

The first category consists of adherents of a feudal and patriarchal society which has already been destroyed, and is still daily being destroyed, by big industry and world trade and their creation, bourgeois society. This category concludes from the evils of existing society that feudal and patriarchal society must be restored because it was free of such evils. In one way or another all their proposals are directed to this end. This category of reactionary socialists, for all their seeming partisanship and their scalding tears for the misery of the proletariat, is nevertheless energetically opposed by the Communists for the following reasons:
(I) It strives for something which is entirely impossible.
(II) It seeks to establish the rule of the aristocracy, the guildmasters, the small producers, and their retinue of absolute or feudal monarchs, officials, soldiers and priests – a society which was, to be sure, free of the evils of present day society but which brought with it at least as many evils without even offering to the oppressed workers the prospect of liberation through a Communist revolution.
(III) As soon as the proletariat becomes revolutionary and Communist, these reactionary Socialists show their true colours by immediately making common cause with the bourgeoisie against the proletarians.

The second category consists of adherents of present-day society who have been frightened for its future by the evils to which it necessarily gives rise. What they want, therefore, is to maintain this society while getting rid of the evils which are an inherent part of it. To this end, some propose mere welfare measures while others come forward with grandiose systems of reform which under the pretence of reorganising society are in fact intended to preserve the foundations, and hence the life, of existing society. Communists must unremittingly struggle against these bourgeois socialists, because they work for the enemies of Communists and protect the society which Communists aim to overthrow.

Finally, the third category consists of democratic socialists who favour some of the same measures the Communists advocate, as described in question 18, not as part of the transition to Communism, however, but rather as measures which they believe will be sufficient to abolish the misery and the evils of present-day society. These democratic socialists are either proletarians who are not yet sufficiently clear about the conditions of the liberation of their class, or they are representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, a class which, prior to the achievement of democracy and the socialist measures to which it gives rise, has many interests in common with the proletariat. It follows that in moments of action the Communists will have to come to an understanding with these democratic Socialists, and in general to follow as far as possible a common policy with them, provided that these Socialists do not enter into the service of the ruling bourgeoisie and attack the Communists. It is clear that this form of co-operation in action does not exclude the discussion of differences.

From what I learned at College, there are a number of differences between Communism and Socialism, and there are a number of different forms of Socialism.
The main difference, which split the Socialist parties off from the Communists at the end of the 19th century, was over the question of whether a revolution was needed to bring about the power of the workers. Marx and Engels were part of the European revolutionary tradition, though they did not oppose fighting elections and in part of their writings looked forward to a peaceful transition to Socialism.

Reformist Socialists, such as Eduard Bernstein in the German Social Democrats, pointed out that instead of getting poorer as Marx and Engels had predicted, the European working class seemed to be becoming better off. He therefore recommended that the SPD should concentrate on fighting elections and promoting the interests of the workers that way, rather than on trying to bring down the system through revolution.

Communism also differs from Socialism generally in that it sees the essence of history as the struggle between succeeding classes. It sees the motor of history as being economic relationships, in which each classes creates in turn the class that eventually is destined to overthrow it. Thus feudalism and the rule of the aristocracy gave rise to bourgeois capitalism. This cleared away aristocratic rule and set about instituting democracy instead. The bourgeoisie in their turn created, through mechanisation and big business, the working class, who do not own the means of production, but merely work at the big machines owned by the factory masters. The working class are therefore the last class to be created by the process of Dialectal Materialism, and will overthrow the bourgeoisie and private property.

There’s also an exclusive emphasis on the role of the working class in the struggle to create a Socialist system. The working class are seen as the only genuinely progressive or revolutionary class, as opposed to the lower middle class or the peasants. This has been modified. For example, Mao based his revolution on the Chinese peasantry, and so significantly modified Marxism in this respect. As did the Russian revolutionaries, who brought about a Communist state in the Soviet Union, when most of the population were still peasants and the working class only constituted a small minority. Marx and Engels expected the first Socialist states to be in the industrialised nations of Western Europe, and were very doubtful about a Socialist revolution succeeding in the Russian Empire.

Marxists also believe in the transvaluation of values. That is, there is no objective, eternal set of moral values. Each society develops a system of morality appropriate for its time, based on the economic foundations of that society. Thus, while Marx is scathing about the exploitation of the poor, nowhere in his writing is there a moral condemnation of that exploitation.

His attitude is in marked contrast to other Socialists, who came to Socialism through religion and ethical considerations, such as some of the Fabians. Lenin and the Russian Communists were extremely sniffy about them, as Marxism considers that it gives an objective account of the origins of society and social change, in contrast to the subjective analysis based on morality of other forms of Socialism.

Communism also differs from other forms of Socialism in that it regards Socialism as merely a transitory period during which people will get so used to sharing, that eventually the state will wither away and something like anarchism will emerge instead.

Finally, Communism in practice has largely consisted in nearly total nationalisation and a one-party state, although China is now one of the major capitalist nations, and reforming, dissident Communists like Imre Nagy in Hungary and Anton Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, and also Mikhail Gorbachev, wished to replace the coercive Communist system of Stalinism with ‘Communism with a human face’, in which other parties would be permitted and the Communist party would have to fight elections like everyone else.


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