Capitalism, Socialism, & Communism: A Gentle Introduction

The difference between socialism and communism is often a point of confusion. In this piece, the author offers a materialist framework of history in order to understand the various stages of society and the struggles between them. This writing is meant for beginners.

Capitalism and socialism are stages of human society in which there is a struggle between those who own property and those who do not. 

Examples of property include land, factories, machines, and other tools and resources necessary to produce food, shelter, electronics, medicine, or any other commodity

The individual, or private, “ownership” of property is a relatively new concept in the greater history of humankind and necessarily emerged through violent means. Settler-colonialism (occupation, division, and privatization) in Turtle Island  and Israel provide one of the most recent and straightforward examples.

The minority of people who own property, capitalists, have the ability to invest its value in order to accumulate profit. In one way, this can be done by hiring workers, otherwise known as buying labor-power, and using them to transform resources into commodities. 

As an example, a capitalist who owns land rich in minerals may hire people to dig out iron ore, meaning that labor transforms earth into usable ore. The capitalist can then sell these ores for profit, without contributing any labor themself. Moreover, it is possible and even likely that the same capitalist also owns a steel mill and a railroad factory because of various processes of monopolization, the merging of companies to minimize competition. Thus, the capitalist can hire even more people to complete the process of transforming iron ore into various steel products, further maximizing profit.

The majority of people who do not own property, wage workers, have no means of accumulating wealth aside from selling their own labor. This creates an inherent relationship with capitalists who necessarily need to buy labor-power for their own wealth accumulation. Of course, not everything fits so neatly into this binary. Managers, administrators, and lower-level executives who work for capitalists are also wage workers, however they usually serve the power of the capitalist class by disrupting the consolidation of working class power.

Workers have existed throughout history, but in different forms. In feudal society, such as pre-industrial Europe and pre-revolutionary China, peasants were the dominant working class. They produced commodities by working on lands owned by lords and monarchs and surrendered a bulk of their produce to their respective landlords. Because they were not paid wages, they were workers of a different form. This relationship still exists in India and is a struggle taken into account by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Other workers, such as artisans and handicraftsmen (laborers with specialized skills such as weaving, building, or forging), also existed in greater numbers in past societies. These classes withered to small minorities in many parts of the world as the capitalist class emerged with the Industrial Revolution. 

Rapid advancements in technology led to the production of machines which drastically improved the processes of production. For example, clothing, which had been made by individual craftspeople, could now be produced en masse using the power loom, effectively running individual weavers out of business. Rich lords were able to purchase machines and set up factories on their lands, creating employment in a time of mass unemployment. Agriculture was also industrialized, replacing peasants who lived under landlords. 

Once the capitalist class had consolidated more power, they overthrew the obsolete ruling class of feudal lords and monarchs. Revolutions in France and American colonies illustrate this historical trend. When the conflict between capitalists and feudal lords was over, a new conflict began.

Simply put, in this new capitalist society there is a contradiction in the relations of production because capitalists are in necessary and antagonistic conflict with wage workers. The advancement of either class requires the subjugation of the other class. Class reconciliation is impossible. To produce profit, especially in a competitive economy, Capitalists need to maximize the extraction of labor from workers while minimizing wages.. On the other hand, workers want to minimize work and maximize wages, especially in an economy where prices of life-sustaining essential commodities (housing, food, education, medicine) are high. 

Further, from a moral standpoint of Marxists, such essentials should not be privately owned. No one should be forced to sell labor in order to access even the bare minimum of essentials.

Under capitalism, capitalists are in power and workers are not. Power is defined by which class has material control of social, economic, and political forces. Under capitalism, capitalists are in control of the state, media, education, and ideology, leaving no room for workers to attain freedom and democracy in the fullest sense. For example, capitalists own all mainstream media and understandably do not publish perspectives which undermine their own power. Further, they fund political campaigns of politicians who serve their agenda, while lobbying the government to combat policies in favor of the working class. Such policies are shaped by working class demands which organically emerge under exploitation.

Modern science tells us that all things in the universe come in and out of existence–all matter is in constant motion and nothing lasts forever. For this reason, capitalism, a system that exists in the real world and consists of matter in motion has an end just as it had a beginning. Communists believe that the stage which follows capitalism must be socialism. The only other option is extinction, fueled by capitalism’s increasingly irrevocable environmental destruction in pursuit of profits.

The new stage of socialism is not necessarily the end of the capitalist class. It simply means that workers will be in power, setting the stage for a more advanced society where the worker-capitalist relationship can be eradicated.

When workers take control of the state, they are able to exert control over access to housing, food, wages, etc., without the influence of capitalists. This is what is known as socialism. Because of the antagonistic relationship between capitalists and workers, there can be no peaceful way to transition power from one class to another. Most importantly, in the stage of socialism, both workers and capitalists still exist and thus the struggle between these classes has not ended. Adhering to a scientific analysis of society helps dispel the understandable utopian dreams of a peaceful path to an egalitarian society, as a class that is in power does not easily give it up.

The goal of socialism is to end conflict between capitalists and workers by changing the relations of production. At some point, through the domination of worker power, the capitalist class will cease to exist. This necessarily implies that the working class will also disappear. The concept of the wage worker only exists in relation to the capitalist, the wage provider.

It is possible for workers to take direct control of the mechanisms of power, as they have in the socialist Revolutions of Russia (1917), Mongolia (1921), China (1949), and Cuba (1959), among others. Importantly, workers who seize control of power in their particular countries, are still dominated by an international capitalist class. The monopolization process, mentioned earlier, transcends borders and constructs a globalized capitalist class, currently centered in the United States. This stage of capitalism is known as imperialism

Unfortunately, because imperialism requires the domination of global markets through tactics such as colonialism, settler-colonialism, and neocolonialism (all topics for future publications), the struggle between workers and capitalists becomes obscured by a more primary struggle: national liberation, or decolonization, vs. imperialism. For example, the struggle between Palestinian workers and capitalists becomes secondary to the struggle between Palestinians and occupying forces backed by the imperialist Empires of the International capitalist class.

Defeating the imperialist Empires will set the stage for socialist revolutions in the colonized world. Similarly, socialist revolutions in the colonized world set the stage for socialist revolution within the imperialist Empire (United States, European Union, Japan, Australia). Both processes go hand in hand.

When the means of production are increasingly put into the hands of the working class, through socialist revolutions around the world, the capitalist class begins to wither away. This is when communism begins. It is possible that this stage will bring its own form of class struggle between classes which we cannot yet conceive. It is also possible that classes will cease to exist completely. At this point the species as a whole will struggle against new conflicts, possibly the environment. 

Once there is no longer a class which dominates and a class to be dominated, the state as an oppressive force also disappears, bringing complete harmony to the human race. 

Have your say