What is the difference between "socialism" and "communism"? The two terms are interchangeable: both describe the classless, stateless society of free and equal producers projected and advocated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who both used the two terms interchangeably. Marx and Engels generally preferred to use the term "socialism" in their writings.
As Engels explained in his 1888 preface to the English translation of The Communist Manifesto:
"When it appeared, we could not have called it a socialist manifesto. Two kinds of people were regarded as socialists in 1847. On the one hand were the followers of the various Utopian systems, especially the Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France, both of which at that time had dwindled to mere sects that were already dying out. On the other hand were the numerous social quacks who, with their various panaceas and every type of patchwork, wanted to do away with social evils without, in the slightest, harming capital and profit. In both cases, they were people outside the labor movement and looked far more for support from the 'educated' classes.
On the other hand, that part of the working class which was convinced of the inadequacy of a mere political revolution and demanded a fundamental transformation of society -- that part at the time called itself communist.... In 1847 socialism signified a bourgeois movement and communism a working-class movement. Socialism, at least on the Continent, was respectable enough for the drawing room; communism was the exact opposite. Since we were already then definitely of the opinion that 'the emancipation of the workers had to be the task of the working class itself,' we could not for one moment be in doubt as to which of the two names to choose. Nor has it ever occurred to us to renounce it since then."
Today, both "socialism" and "communism" have been wrongly associated with false definitions. Thanks to the Labour Party in Britain many people have come to equate "socialism" with any industry or program that is administered by the capitalist political state, be it a nationalised healthcare system or a welfare program. "Communism," meanwhile, has come to be associated with the system of bureaucratic state-capitalism, run by the despotic so-called Communist parties.
Adding to the confusion is the false concept that the Leninist organizations have promoted for many years -- the idea that a post-capitalist society first goes through a lengthy "socialist" stage, before arriving at the classless society of "communism." This is a distortion of Marxism, invented by Lenin in his work, ‘State and Revolution’. Marx did describe a "first phase" and "higher phase" of "communist society" in his Critique of the Gotha Program. But he was not describing a "transitional" stage in which classes and the state would still exist, and a "higher" stage in which they would disappear, and he did not describe the "first phase" as "socialism" and the "higher phase" as "communism." Rather, he was describing a development that would occur after the classless society, based on social ownership and democratic workers' control of the means of production -- a society that could be described as either "socialism" or "communism" -- was fully established. In the "first phase," some measure of labor time would still be needed to govern the exchange and distribution of the workers' product; in the "higher phase," distribution could be conducted according to the principle: "From everyone according to his faculties, to everyone according to his needs."
Lenin described Marx's two "phases" as "the scientific difference between socialism and communism." Subsequently, in the ideology of the Leninists and Trotskyist, "socialism" became associated with bureaucratic state-capitalism, and "communism" with the classless society that somehow would arrive some day in the far-off distant future. But these false and confusing definitions of "socialism" and "communism" have no basis in Marx's writings. Naturally, the capitalist class and its leading propagandists in the United States have been all too happy to seize upon any and all of the false definitions of "socialism" and "communism" in order to confuse the working class and discredit both words in workers' minds. Standing against such misinformation, the Socialist Party have an established history of fighting to uphold the correct Marxist meaning of socialism or communism. In defending and advocating Marx's and Engels' conception of the future classless society, though, we have focused on winning over workers by using the term that Marx and Engels preferred in their later years -- socialism.
The fact that Marx and Engels championed universal suffrage, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press; the fact that their conception of socialism was a class-free society administered by "associations of free and equal producers"; the fact that they hailed the workers' participatory democracy of the Paris Commune as a harbinger of socialism -- such inconvenient truths are simply ignored by the capitalist propaganda machine in its tireless efforts to steer workers away from socialism.