I thought this post by Mark E. Andersen at Daily Kos was very good.
Since 2008 we have seen conservatives call President Obama a socialist, a fascist, a Nazi, a communist, and all of the above. Who knows where the American right comes up with this stuff, because even the communists aren’t communists anymore.
Fascism, socialism, communism, National Socialism, Marxism, Islamofascism, and democratic socialism: Today’s conservatives, in their search for a bogeyman equal to the former Soviet Union, have thrown all these words around as if they all mean the same thing. But they are all different philosophies on how to govern (except for Islamofascism and National Socialism—more on those later). That is where the similarities between them end. The mental gymnastics required to think that fascism and socialism are the same philosophy are beyond belief. So to help our confused conservative friends, below is a primer of what each of these philosophies really are (hint: Obama is not any of them). Please keep in mind, this is just a brief overview of these philosophies and not an in-depth look.
Fascism: What is it? Think Mussolini—he is the poster child for what a fascist is. While he started out as a socialist, he did not stay one, denouncing socialism in December 1914. The formal definition of fascism is a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual, and stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. Fascism is usually placed on the far right within the traditional left/right political spectrum.
Marxism: The granddaddy of political philosophies on the left. The child of Karl Marxand Friedrich Engels, it’s the philosophy that laid the ground work for socialism and communism. But what is it? The formal definition of Marxism is the political, economic, and social principles and policies advocated by Marx, and “a theory and practice of socialism including the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, the class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat until the establishment of a classless society.” Much is this is laid out by Marx in Das Kapital, which is a fascinating read if you are so inclined. Marxism is on the far left of the traditional left/right political spectrum.
Communism: The direct descendant of Marxism. Some of the more well-known communist states in the world are the Soviet Union (and her satellites), the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba. Communism calls for the means of production to be owned by the government, and there is no private property. In theory, it is the final evolution of Marxism and is the perfect classless society. In practice: Well, George Orwell said it best in Animal Farm. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Communism is on the far left of the traditional left/right political spectrum.
Socialism: The middle step between capitalism and full-blown communism. The formal definition of socialism is a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies. So the important industries like healthcare, power, communications, transportation, and other industries are owned by the state, but there is private property. Socialism is on far left of the traditional left/right political spectrum.
Democratic socialism: Social ownership of the means of production, but with a democratically elected government. The formal definition is a political ideology advocating a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, involving a combination of political democracy with social ownership of the means of production. The adjective "democratic" is often added to distinguish itself from the Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism, which is widely viewed as being non-democratic. We have many aspects of democratic socialism in the United States today: Public libraries, snow removal, trash pick-up, Medicare, fire protection, police protection, and Social Security are just a handful of examples. Democratic socialism is on the left of the traditional left/right political spectrum.
National Socialism, aka the Nazis: This is not socialism no matter what anyone tells you. It is a fascist-based philosophy. The formal definition is the ideology and practice associated with the 20th century German Nazi Party and Nazi state, as well as other far-right groups. It’s usually characterized as a form of fascism that incorporates scientific racism and anti-Semitism. National Socialism is on the far right of the traditional left/right political spectrum.
Islamofascism: Is this really even a thing? Formally it is defined as anideologypromotedbysomeIslamists,theaimsofwhicharetoestablishIslamicorthodoxyandtoresistwesternsecularism. However, many critics are dismissive. Daniel Benjamin brands it as "meaningless." Norman Finkelstein calls it a “kosher-halal" throwback version of the "vacuous" old leftist epithet "fascist pig.” Paul Krugman calls it a "figment of the neocon imagination,” and Angelo Codevilla states that it “betrays an ignorance of both Islam and Fascism.” It appears that Islamofascism is something our conservative friends made up as a bogeyman to replace the former Soviet Union. I have no idea where this made-up thing goes on the traditional left/right political spectrum.
So there you have it. A very brief tutorial on some of the political philosophies that conservatives in the United States are willfully ignorant about. Next time your uncle starts raving about that fascist/communist/socialist/Marxist/Islamofascist Obama—just print this, hand it to him and walk away. It likely won’t do any good, but, you won’t have to waste your time trying to explain that fascism is not the same as communism.