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
    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. 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
    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
    May 12, 2020 at 9:23

1 Answer 1


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
    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
    May 12, 2020 at 11:03

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