I have the impression from my (limited, autodidactic) reading of Marx that he was antagonistic towards various forms of Socialism, criticizing Socialists for being (among other things) piecemeal reformers who remained bound by the economic relations of existing societies, and who de-emphasize class struggle and revolutionary expression by the proletariat, (in the Communist Manifesto section III. SOCIALIST AND COMMUNIST LITERATURE)

But on the wikipedia page for "Types of Socialism" I read,

In Marxist theory, socialism refers to a specific stage of social and economic development that will displace capitalism, characterized by coordinated production, public or cooperative ownership of capital, diminishing class conflict and inequalities that spawn from such and the end of wage-labor with a method of compensation based on the principle of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution".

I see the quote, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution" is not from Marx himself but an interpretation of the "Critique of the Gotha Program" in which Marx critically regards this stage as an inevitable first phase of communist society as it emerges from capitalist society, but Marx does not (as far as I can see) use the word "socialism" to describe this form of nascent communism. Marx goes on to describe a "higher phase of communist society", a utopia characterized by "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"

Would Marx himself have described this nascent stage of communism as "socialism" of do later Marxist theorists, notably those charged with implementing a Marxist society, use the word "socialism" in a different sense to Marx, to bridge (fudge?) over the gap between Marx's utopian vision and the practical considerations of incentivizing workers?

  • This terminological distinction wasn't from Marx, and Lenin did popularize it even if he wasn't the first to speak this way, see p. 87 of the paper at jstor.org/stable/41720468 (you can sign up for a free jstor membership and then read 100 articles a month)
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 0:19
  • The word socialism is used and interpreted in many ways. Are you referring to a socialistic political systems, socialistic economic systems, or socialistic policies? They are different animals and the implementation of one does not assume the others. Communism is not socialism. To conflate the two is one of the problems in some modern Western countries, just as conflating capitalism with democracy is. Commented May 10, 2020 at 4:54
  • Hi. You can look at the books of Tom Rockmore. b-ok.cc/g/Tom%20Rockmore See particularly: Marx’s Dream: From Capitalism to Communism (2018). I have never downloaded from this site. May be great but I don’t know. Good university library would be an alternative for Rockmore’s books.
    – Gordon
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 11:30
  • @SwamiVishwananda I often see a conflation of Communism with socialism in the US (less in the UK). My question seeks to tease out the difference from original sources. It is also useful to make distinctions between modern usages e.g. today most parties that describe themselves as socialist are not Communist, as they propose an economy mixed between regulated capitalist enterprises in the private sector, and a public sector enabled through taxation. Similarly most conservative parties are not laissez-faire capitalists, accepting some degree taxation and regulation. It's a spectrum.
    – Kev Sepia
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 9:23

2 Answers 2


Good question. The simple answer is no. Marx did not make any clear theoretical distinction between socialism and communism. You are correct that he describes a "first phase" of transition to communism in Critique of the Gotha Program but does not use the term "socialism" as a name for that phase.

For an overview of how Marx understood socialism/communism check out Peter Hudis' "Marx’s Concept of Socialism" from The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx.

Marx used many terms to refer to a post-capitalist society—positive humanism, socialism, Communism, realm of free individuality, free association of producers, etc. He used these terms completely interchangeably. The notion that “socialism” and “Communism” are distinct historical stages is alien to his work and only entered the lexicon of Marxism after his death.

I'm not sure exactly how this revision of terminology developed historically, but Lenin seems to have had an important role in promoting it. In Chapter 5 of The State and Revolution, Lenin discusses the stages of development described by Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program. Even though he acknowledges that Marx did not use the term "socialism" to refer to the first phase, Lenin adopts it anyway and claims that "the scientific distinction between socialism and communism is clear."

  • Thank you for your help. Hudis says Marx used the terms socialism and Communism interchangeably, yet Marx claims the distinction between the two is clear. Not only clear, but "scientific". As a simple scientist myself, I feel a headache coming on ;-)
    – Kev Sepia
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 8:46
  • It was Lenin, not Marx, who said the distinction is clear. I made an edit to hopefully make that more clear.
    – Brian Z
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 11:03

Terms socialism and communism existed before Marx, notably in the discussions of French thinkers preceding him (Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Proudhon, and many others - see, e.g., Wikipedia article History of Socialism for more names.) Marxism emerged as a current in socialist thought, and when young Marx and Engels criticize various kinds of Socialists in the Communist Manifesto, they refer to various contemporary currents, which continued to exist afterwards. Thus, we should distinguish:

Socialism in Marx
As pointed out in the answer by @BrianZ (on which I am merely expanding) Marx himself used terms socialism and communism interchangeably. Term Marxism then would designate the specific current in socialism.

Socialism in Marxism
Detailed stages of capitalism and transition to communism were detailed after Marx. This notably applies to Imperialism (as the highest form of Capitalism) and Socialism as a stage distinct from communism. Lenin and his followers were particularly concerned with this question, as they needed to explain to themselves and the population why the communist paradise was slow to come:

  • Initially, the communism was expected to begin right away after the Socialist Revolution of 1917, and it seemed to really happen in the conditions of the civil war, which demanded rigid industrial discipline and forced expropriation of the agricultural goods - see War communism.
  • After the war ended, the hardships of the war communism could not be justified anymore - the class consciousness of the population was clearly not mature enough for communism. Lenin then played with the idea that a period of managed capitalism is necessary, before true transition to the Communism. This ushered the period of NEP (New economic policy.)
  • As Russian capitalism began rising, refuting the Marxist predictions, Stalin decided to speed things up via massive nationalization, collectivization, and industrialization. The characteristically roughless communist manner of these policies produced phenomena like Holodomor, which is sadly only a small part of the story. Stalin himself admitted the failure, blaming it however on the excessive zeal of the local communists enforcing his policies.
  • This ushered in the idea of gradual building of Communism under the guidance of the Communist Party, which was particularly promoted in Khruschev, with his claim that

The current generation of Soviet people will live under communism.

See Communism in 20 years.

  • When this also failed to materialize, the slogan was later quietly changed to The next generation of Soviet people will live under communism, and it was proclaimed that the Soviet People live in a society that, although not yet Communist, is drastically different from Capitalism. It was called Real Socialism or Developed Socialism. It is at this point that viewing socialism as a separate stage in social evolution reaches its peak. Notably, the Soviet constitution explicitly defined the USSR as a socialist state (note that none of the western liberal democracies refers to itself as socialist - e.g., French constitution proclaims France a social state.)

Socialism without Marx
Socialism without Marx continued developing in Western Europe and elsewhere. A couple examples are worth mentioning:

An important socialist current in Germany was ADAV, created by Ferdinand Lassalle, who agreed with Marx on many things, but believed in achieving socialism via universal suffrage and parliamentary influence. This party would later join with Marxist offshoot - the even that triggerred Marx' fierce Critique of the Gotha Program. A fight between Lassaleans and Marxists would be fought in the decades to follow under the title of revisionism, ending in victory of Lassaleans - who continue to exist as the Social Democratic Party of Germany. In 1959 this party officially any references to Marxism, but continues to call itself Socialist

France is considered a socialist country par excellence. As mentioned above, Socialism had had a long history in France before Marx, and his own thinking was largely inspired by the French ideas, although he later criticized many of them. French (like many others) turned out to be unreceptive to Marxism during Marx lifetime, and was clearly siding with revisionists during the German debate mentioned above - engaging in a Politics of Ministerialism, where the leading French socialists (like Jaures) openly joined government.

The communism was be parachuted to France in 1920 by Comintern (just like in many other countries), and remained non-influencial during the pre-WW2 years, when French socialists were running high and achieved many reforms. Although the French Communist party played a more important role during and after the war - due to the backing by the USSR - it eventually returned to oblivion in the Mitterrand years, i.e., with the rise of non-Marxist socialists to power.

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