The words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ are often ill-understood and ill-defined, so this page aims to forestall the more common and obvious misunderstandings.
Socialism in general is defined by collective ownership of the means of production. This is consistent with the payment to individuals of wages by collective bodies, thus the persistence of a certain sort of ‘currency’. Communism goes further, to collective ownership of everything – or rather, what is the same, no ownership at all (hence no money and no wages). This (communism) does not mean sharing of toothbrushes, it means that people’s claims over things are negotiated and open to revision, e.g. nobody can claim a ‘right’ to some particular object and demand that this be respected regardless of other people’s claims.
Class societies, by contrast, are defined by private ownership of the means of production – capitalism is a particular sort of class society, based on a particular pattern of ownership. ‘Socialist’ and ‘communist’ are words that, when applied to individual people’s beliefs, mean basically the same thing – a general rejection of private ownership.
‘Collective ownership’ can be understood as ‘state ownership’ only if the state is seen as the proper representative of ‘society’. Some socialists have seen the state this way, whether that state is a parliamentary “democratic state” in the ‘social-democratic’ tradition (e.g. of the extreme left of the British Labour Party) or a one-party “worker’s state” in the Leninist tradition (e.g. in the USSR or Cuba).
But that’s clearly rubbish. The state is not society. State ownership just means private property in the hands of a different group of rulers.
The sort of organisations that really can represent society have been variously called ‘councils’, ‘assemblies’, ‘soviets’, or ‘syndicates’ – groups of local citizens or workers who directly deliberated and made decisions, and where necessary sent elected delegates, with authoritative commands, to co-ordinating bodies at a larger scale. This model has been supported both by anarchist theorists, and by the experience of many revolutionary upsurges, when such organs were formed spontaneously by the people rising up.
On the basis of common ownership and direct democracy, economic decisions can be made based on what benefits people, not on what is profitable. At the moment, things that make people worse off but are profitable, like omnipresent adverts, pollution, and warfare often happen, whereas things which benefit people but aren’t profitable, like guaranteeing food and housing to every individual, or freely sharing information and technology, don’t. Moreover, the benefits and advantages of society can be distributed fairly and humanely, rather than going to a small group of already wealthy individuals and countries while others are left in poverty.
Note that becase the ultimate source of power, the people themselves, is organised and active on an ongoing basis, there is the greatest possible flexibility in what specific arrangements might be made. Socialism/communism is not a rigid blueprint or prescription for how society should look. It is an attempt to allow groups to act consciously and collectively, free from the straight-jacket of private property.
Some posts of mine about communism:
A few posts about the philosophy of direct democracy
A few posts about the concept of property