In light of widespread misinformation about the realities of left-wing ideologies, below is a helpful cheat sheet outlining socialism, anarchism and communism.
With the current smear campaign being waged against anti-fascist forces in the U.S. by the Trump administration, the police force, and its loyal liberal following, it is especially important to have some basic knowledge about the differences between communism, socialism, and anarchism as broadly left-wing ideologies that have been historically important to anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century, and which continue to shed light on various social possibilities for the present.
Unsurprisingly, right-wing ideologues and the large swathe of liberals that protect and sustain their agenda often purposefully conflate, simplify, or paint over these concepts with a broad brush stroke. Any sort of ideology related to communism or socialism must be bad, since it is associated with Stalin and the “evil Soviets” of the 1960’s and 70’s. And any concepts related to anarchism or anti-fascism must be hell-bent on the destruction of property and nothing else.
These are some of the uneducated myths that swirl around the collective conservative-liberal consciousness, and they are myths that are rooted in a blind adherence to the status quo and fear of any sort of structural change to the way in which society is organized (which, under capitalism, depends on an extremely unequal distribution of resources and a system that exploits the labor of the majority so that a small number can benefit from the wealth this labor creates).
In light of widespread misinformation about the legacies and realities of these left-wing ideologies, below is a helpful cheat sheet outlining some basic similarities and differences between socialism, anarchism and communism. Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list, and if you would like further and more detailed information, please refer to the reading list I’ve created at the end of this article to further educate yourself about the material histories as well as ideas related to global socialism, anarchism, and communism.
Communism, in a nut shell, is a theory of social organization in which the goal is common ownership of the means of production. What do communists mean by “the means of production?” Well, the means of production refers to anything that people use in order to create value. So at a very basic level, an example of a “mean of production” would be a tool such as a shovel, which a farmer can use to plant seeds, thereby growing food and selling it. Another example would be a factory or a machine, which turns cloth into clothing that can then be sold. It could also include natural resources which generate value, as well as tools of communication such as computers, which have the ability to generate value.
For communists, the basic problem with society as we know it (that is, capitalist society) is that the majority of people who comprise it are workers who do not own the means of production. Instead, the means of production are owned by capitalists, i.e. landlords, factory owners, bosses, etc. to whom all the surplus value generated by the workers immediately accrues. This creates a situation wherein the means of production are privately owned (by capitalists) and thus, wealth is disproportionately hoarded by capitalists at the expense of workers (who do not own the means of production and thus depend on selling their labor for a living). Communists propose that the means of production be commonly (that is, collectively) rather than privately owned, in order to redistribute wealth to the masses.
Socialism is similar to communism in that it advocates for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, but as a philosophy and theory of social organization, it encompasses a much broader variety of tactics within it. While some socialists, like communists, call for the abolition of money and social classes through the communization of the means of production, other socialists take a more moderate approach and advocate for reforms from within the current capitalist system. Examples of socialist reforms might include improving working conditions for the poor, free public education, universal healthcare, or social security. Some socialists call for the abolition of the state altogether, whereas others argue that the state should take a central role in the production and distribution of resources.
Anarchism is yet another related but distinct strain of left-wing anti-capitalist thought that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is considered the most radical of the three in that it unequivocally advocates for the abolition of the state (with no exceptions) because it views the state as an entity that possesses an absolute monopoly on violence, and thus actively and unnecessarily harms people. In place of a state, anarchism proposes a vision in which societies are essentially self-governed and based on voluntary, non-hierarchical, non-binding institutions and associations. It argues that any kind of hierarchy in human relations is harmful and should be actively opposed.
Communism, socialism, and anarchism are political PHILOSOPHIES that, like any philosophy, can be (and have been) implemented successfully and unsuccessfully, been co-opted for the benefit of a small group of people or instrumentalized in ways that have in fact benefitted large numbers of people (see, for example, the case of Chile). The myth that communism “failed” and is thus an unviable social praxis is untenable. In fact, many socialist regimes in Latin America were doing just fine until the United States decided that these regimes posed a threat to their economic hegemony in the southern hemisphere, at which point they sent in military juntas to violently overthrow them.
Similarly, the myth that communism, socialism, and anarchism are “white” philosophies is also untenable. There is a rich, global history of Black Communists, Japanese anarchists, and Latin American socialisms that have all in their own ways resisted the hegemony of white supremacist imperialist and capitalist forces, and which have proposed viable alternatives to these structures.
Below are some recommendations for further reading:
-Davies, Carol Boyce. Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
-Debray, Regis. The Chilean Revolution: Conversations with Salvador Allende. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
-Evans, Kate. Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg. London: Verso Books, 2015.
-Holmes, Leslie. Communism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
-Ramnath, Maia. Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle. Oakland: AK Press, 2011.
-Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
-Sakae, Osugi. The Autobiography of Osugi Sakae. trans. Byron K. Marshall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
-Ward, Colin. Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.