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A History of Meanings

A History of Meanings

Socialism, communism, social democracy, revolution… The divergent and shifting meanings attached to words like these cause endless confusion and misunderstanding. Why is it so difficult for people to agree on what they mean? How did all the muddle arise? 

In this article I try to clarify the matter by tracing the history of such terms and how and why their meanings have changed over time. In doing so I shall have to refer briefly to certain historical events that led to changes in meaning. Nevertheless, this is a history not of events but of words and meanings. 

Socialism and Communism

The words socialism and communism have been in public use for almost 200 years, since the early 1820s (earlier instances are known of their use in private correspondence). Their appearance reflected a reaction to the cruelty and ugliness of the new economic system that by then had firmly established itself in Britain and a few other parts of northwestern Europe – the system that would soon come to be called capitalism. The two words did acquire somewhat different connotations, as Engels was later to explain in his introduction to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party

When it was written [1847] we could not have called it a socialist manifesto… in 1847, socialism was a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement… And as our notion … was that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself,’ there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.

Nevertheless, there was even at this time no substantive difference of meaning between socialism and communism — and within another couple of decades, as Engels implies, even the difference in connotation was to fade. This does not mean that there were no significant differences among writers in the way they conceived of socialism/communism – but such differences did not determine how they chose between the two words. Socialism and communism were generally seen as alternative ways to refer to a classless post-capitalist society that would finally realize the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity.

In terms of how these words are derived this seems reasonable enough. Socialism is a system guided by social needs, i.e., the needs of society, while communism is a system guided by common needs, i.e., the needs of the community. It is hard to detect any real difference between what is social and what is common, between society and community.

Note that the distinction between socialism as the initial phase of the post-capitalist society and communism as its mature phase was NOT drawn at this period. Marx did make a distinction between two phases, but he did not label the first phase socialism and the second communism. That only came later, with Lenin. Unfortunately, many writers incorrectly project this later Leninist terminology back to Marx. 


There also appeared at this early period a third term equivalent to socialism or communism – associationism. This meant a system based on the principle of association – the word used at that time as the opposite of competition. A present-day equivalent might be cooperativism – and such a word does exist, but with the narrower meaning of a system based on workers’ and consumers’ cooperatives. The word associationism has gone out of use, but it exerted a clear influence on the language used by Marx, who repeatedly refers to the members the post-capitalist society he envisioned as the associated producers.  

Social Democracy   

In 1869, with the creation of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, a new set of terms came into use – social democracysocial democratsocial-democratic. These terms did not mean then what they generally mean today. Social democracy was yet another equivalent of socialismcommunism, and associationism, except perhaps that it was used more often to refer to the party or to the international movement rather than to the future society.

I have not found any explanation of why this set of terms was coined, but the innovation was connected with the creation of socialist political parties seeking parliamentary representation. It had the great merit of emphasizing the commitment of socialists to democracy, which they sought not to displace but rather to extend from the sphere of politics in the narrow sense into the broader sphere of social and economic life. Social democracy was therefore to be the next stage of progressive development after political democracy. 

Socialist CommonwealthCooperative Commonwealth

The word commonwealth goes back to the fifteenth century and originally had no connection with the idea of wealth held in common. It was related to commonweal – that is, the common well-being or the public good. Later it came to be associated with republic. Nowadays the Commonwealth most often refers to the association of former British colonies.   

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, commonwealth was widely used by opponents of capitalism to refer to their ideal post-capitalist society. The noun was usually combined with a clarifying adjective to form the phrase the socialist commonwealth or the cooperative commonwealth. Sometimes, however, the future society was called simply the commonwealth. This, for example, was the name of a weekly newspaper published by the Socialist Party of Washington (the state) from January 1911 to April 1914.  

A Split in the Meaning of Socialism and Social Democracy

A new development that began toward the end of the nineteenth century was the emergence of labor or workers’ movements that focused solely on winning reforms that would benefit the working class within capitalism and did not advocate transformation in the basis of society. 

In the 1890s a group emerged in the German social-democratic party who called themselves evolutionary socialists. Their main spokesman was Eduard Bernstein, who presented his views in a book first published in 1899 under the title Evolutionary Socialism. The formula that aptly summed up his position was: ‘The movement is everything, the goal nothing.’

Similar views were held by those who set up a Fabian Societies in Britain in 1884 and in the US in 1895, named after an ancient Roman general whose strategy of gradual attrition wore down a superior Carthaginian army. The first few years of the twentieth century saw the formation of the British Labour Party, likewise focused on securing reforms within capitalism (although its membership did include advocates of fundamental change).  

There was nothing new about seeking reforms to improve the conditions of the working class. Previously, however, those who confined themselves to advocating such reforms had not called themselves socialists. The word socialism had clearly implied fundamental change. That meaning was now diluted. There occurred a split between evolutionary or gradualist socialism and revolutionary socialism. The term social democracy underwent a similar split.


At this point we need to inquire into the history of the word revolution. Used in a social (rather than scientific) context, it tends to have two meanings. It means, first, a radical change in social conditions that is relatively rapid and entails a degree of discontinuity, in contrast to evolutionary change, which is slower, gradual, and continuous. Marxists give revolution the special meaning of a fundamental change in the mode of production, such as the revolution that replaced feudalism by capitalism. In common usage the word often refers to a mere change in political regime. 

In its second meaning, a revolution is a violent and chaotic social upheaval. It is this meaning that is often uppermost in people’s minds. As William Morris pointed out, there is no tight logical connection between the two meanings. Under the right conditions, a revolution in the sense of fundamental social change may be accomplished with little or no violence. Conversely, a violent upheaval may not lead to social change of any great significance. 

Before the emergence of political democracy, however, it was very difficult to imagine how fundamental social change could be achieved without violent upheaval. It was therefore understandable that people should combine the two meanings of revolution. This was still the situation in the middle of the nineteenth century when Marx and Engels wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Later in the century, after Marx died, Engels began to entertain the notion that socialism might be achieved, at least in some countries, by peaceful democratic means.    

An Upheaval in Meanings

Events in the decade that began with the outbreak of world war in 1914 led to drastic change in the meanings of socialismcommunism, and social democracy. By the mid-1920s these terms possessed roughly the same meanings as they have today. The earlier meanings of socialism and social democracy, already diluted by the emergence of ‘evolutionary socialism,’ had nearly disappeared.

Two developments in particular had a crucial impact: (a) the support that parties still calling themselves socialist, social-democratic, or labour parties gave to the war effort; and (b) the coming to power in Russia of a regime that called itself ‘communist’ and claimed to be establishing ‘socialism’ there.

Pro-war and Anti-war ‘Socialists’

Even though several ‘socialist’ parties supported the war effort, there were still many members of these parties (mainly on their left wing) who remained ‘internationalists’ and opposed the war. There were also some parties and party factions that opposed the war, such as the Italian Socialist Party and the Bolshevik and Menshevik-Internationalist factions of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. 

Many internationalists were so disgusted at the pro-war stance of their erstwhile comrades that they felt a need to dissociate themselves from the pro-war ‘socialists.’ But how could they do that and still call themselves socialists or social democrats when the pro-war people showed no sign of abandoning the habit of calling themselves socialists and social democrats? 

The first group of anti-militarists to break away from the German party called itself the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany, but many did not find this an adequate remedy and eventually decided to revive Marx’s usage from seventy years before and call themselves communists.  

Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia were among those who took this path, but they were not alone in so doing. In Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy there were in the post-war years quite large groups who called themselves council communists, thereby distinguishing themselves not only from the ‘socialists’ but also from Lenin’s ‘party communists.’ They assigned the leading role in the revolution to the newly formed workers’ councils rather than to a vanguard party (‘the social revolution is no party affair’). However, with the passing of the ‘revolutionary wave’ the council communists found themselves in a marginal position and they had no lasting impact on the prevalent pattern of meanings. 

There were also some groups of socialists who opposed war and reformism but refused to give up the socialist label. The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties were among these groups, which may be considered surviving remnants of the socialist movement of the late nineteenth century. Even these groups, unfortunately, did not insist on continuing to call themselves social democrats.   

Where then did this leave the pattern of meanings? The earlier meaning of socialism was greatly weakened though not lost altogether. Socialism now usually meant the reform of capitalism. The earlier meaning of social democracywas completely lost: except to specialists in labor history, the phrase now always meant the reform of capitalism and nothing more. The word communism had come back into use, with the meaning formerly given to socialism and social democracy. But only for a while. 

‘Communist’ Regimes and ‘Socialist’ Countries  

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 brought to power a regime that established a new system of society in Russia. I am not going to discuss here the nature of the new system except to emphasize that it was far removed from what had been understood in the nineteenth century as socialismsocial democracy, or communism. Nor did the ruling Bolsheviks claim that the system over which they presided closely resembled socialism as previously envisioned. However, they did assert that it was moving in that direction and that socialism as previously envisioned remained their ultimate goal.

The Bolsheviks set about devising a new pattern of meanings that would legitimize their rule. In so doing they heavily relied on a distinction that Marx had drawn in his Critique of the Gotha Program between a lower phase of communist society, ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges,’ and a mature ‘higher phase of communist society.’ However, while Marx envisioned two phases of the same society, which he sometimes called socialism and sometimes communism, the Bolsheviks began to refer to the two phases as different societies with different names, equating the first phase with socialism and the second with communism. As communism – that is, socialism as previously envisioned – remained their ultimate goal, they continued to call themselves communists, but they called the societies under their rule socialist and definitely not yet communist. Communism was relegated to an indefinitely remote future, the realm of science fiction, except for the period under the leadership of Khrushchev, who proclaimed that ‘the current generation of Soviet people will live under communism.’   

The pattern of meanings devised by the new Russian authorities influenced usage outside Russia as well. Many people thought that a system that actually exists somewhere has a much stronger claim to the socialist label than a mere idea that exists only in some people’s heads. In the United States, where not only ‘genuine socialism’ but even ‘reform socialism’ was until recently unfamiliar to most of the population, ‘Soviet-type’ systems determined the primary meaning of socialism as well as of communism, and countries with ‘Soviet-type’ systems were called either socialist orcommunist countries. In Europe, by contrast, reformist parties still determined the primary meaning of socialism, while countries under such systems were always described as communist. Thanks mainly to Bernie Sanders and his ‘democratic socialism,’ more people in the United States are now aware of ‘reform socialism’; the American and European patterns of meanings may be converging.  


The meaning of words is a matter of great importance. Meanings do much to shape people’s thinking. It is hard even to think and talk about something for which you have at your disposal only misleading words or no words at all. ‘The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.’ So says the Chinese proverb.

A recurrent topic of discussion among genuine socialists/communists is whether it is worth the effort to fight for the ‘true’ (original) meanings of words that are so widely misunderstood. Or should we invent new words to describe ourselves and the society for which we strive? 

Ultimately, meanings are a matter of power and influence. Only by acquiring sufficient influence over people’s minds can we introduce new words into mainstream discourse. But with sufficient influence over people’s minds we can also restore old meanings to words that have gone astray. 

I leave the last word with that renowned philosopher of language from Lewis Carroll’s world Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things – that’s all.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’