Having set the record straight on Naziism, it seems an obvious next step is to do Communism and to talk about communism, one must talk about socialism as the latter grew out of the former.
The basic premise of socialism is that the capitalist system concentrates wealth and power within a small ownership class which exploits the worker. That much is undeniable to anyone with functioning eyes but socialism then posits further that, by common or communal ownership of the means of production and distribution, the abuses of the capitalist system can be eliminated or, at least, minimised. The idea is that if the community (usually via the state) owns and operates a service and has no internal competitors (that part's important), then the state, as representative of the people, can allocate wages and rewards fairly. Over time, as these roles become ingrained, the need for the state to administer them gradually withers away and the state itself becomes redundant (as in, both unnecessary and out of work). One may agree or disagree with it but that's the theory.
It's worth pointing out that, on a small scale, socialism can work well. The traditional farmer's collective or British share fishermen (where each take a percentage of the collective catch) are examples of socialism working well on a small scale. They work well because there is an emotional tie between each member of the collective. One may feel that the nameless person collecting Social Security is a lazy scrounger but it's a bit different when it's Bob who you've known your whole life and know is laid up right now with a broken leg. Likewise, Bob himself probably would feel some guilt about ripping off his friends and/or family if he didn't attempt to make up his end of the collective bargain.
No-one really knows who first came up with socialist theory but the term was coined by Henri de Saint-Simon who, along with Friendrich Engels, laid the foundations of modern socialist theory (earlier forms, such as the aforementioned farmer's collective, go back to the Medieval Period). Various governments have experimented with socialism on a limited scale, generally with regard to the essential services too important to be left to the whims of the free market (something I extrapolate on in other essays). Sometimes, they have worked (Social Security in the USA, prior to it's demolition by George W. Bush; the NHS in Britain), other times they have not (the EU's Common Fisheries Policy is still a sore spot for many). Now, few of those are truly socialist as most have internal competitors which force the state-run option into a battle with private industry. For example, while the NHS covers the health needs of all Britons from birth to death, other companies offer health insurance in Britain and some operate entirely private hospitals. The result may be seen as an improvement on pure socialism. Pure socialism, due to it's lack of competitors, has a noted tendancy toward waste and abuse while the whims of an unopposed free market will always operate to maximise profits at the expense of the consumer (see the current health insurance situation in the USA, which resembles a lottery system for health). By having both socialised and private industries compete against one another, one forces the socialised industries to eliminate waste to remain competative but also forces the private firms to minimise the worst abuses to maintain their customer base.
Socialism is an economic theory. It has little to say about politics as the founders of modern socialist thought considered politics merely an extension of economic issues (and one can see their point). When you extend socialism beyond economics, you end up with Communism.
Communism is, in the simplest possible definition, an attempt to create a classless (meaning, lacking social classes rather than just crude), stateless, egalitarian society through the common ownership of not just the means of production and distribution, but all property and, unlike socialism, accepts that revolution may be necessary to bring this about. Whereas, in a socialist system, the worker would get paid for his endevours and then spend his wages on, say, a new pair of shoes; the worker in a Communist system would simply go and request a pair of shoes from the warehouse filled with shoes made by other workers. Again, the state required to administer this would gradually wither away as people adjusted to their roles and, eventually, the state would become entirely unnecessary and disappear. Far from wishing to expand government, communism regards government as simply a short-term necessary evil on the road to an anarchist collective utopia. If you're thinking that avowed Communist states have never worked out that way, you'd be entirely right. For that reason, this form of theoretical Communism is known as "pure Communism" or, more often, simply as Marxism.
Karl Marx was the man who, in conjunction with Friendrich Engels, essentially invented Communism. Contrary to popular belief, Marx wasn't some cackling psychopath but a man with a rather kindly, if also naive, view of human nature. Marx believed that the primary motivator in human history had been the struggle between social classes or, as we would define them, between the Haves and the Have-Nots (Like many men of his time, Marx defined social class purely in terms of wealth). By instituting a system whereby everyone held everything in common, that cause of conflict would be eliminated and peace would reign. Or, at least, that was the theory. Marx himself would have been appalled at what his ideas led to.
No nation in history has ever achieved Marx's form of "pure" Communism. Many observers (including myself) think that vision, although noble, is utterly unworkable for several reasons. Primarily, Marxism makes no accounting for human greed or laziness. The assumption is that the worker will want only that which they require and that everyone will do their fair share and yet, all of us know someone who lives only by the goodwill of others (and I'm not talking about those who have no choice such as the severely disabled). It doesn't account for the human capacity for stupidity and bad judgement that leads a man to squander his life savings on some addictive drug. While in many ways noble, Marxism was not very wise.
Those nations which have attempted to reach Marxist Communism have given birth to several variations. The form which most of us are most familiar with is the form which arose in the Soviet Union during the 1920s: Leninism or Bolshevism. Leninism may have been a genuine attempt to use violent revolution to achieve Marxist ends. It is primarily remembered for Lenin's belief that socialism was merely a middle form which would inevitibly lead to Communism. In this, he was entirely wrong but we'll get to that later. It's difficult for us to say how effective Leninism might have been because that period of Soviet history led directly, in 1928, to Joseph Stalin and the ideaology named after him. Stalinism had very little in common with Marxist thought. Rather, it embodied the worst excesses of both Communism and capitalism: An opressed working class kept deliberately ignorant; cults of personality and an intrusive police state. In every practical sense, Stalinism was an enlightened (for a given value of "enlightened" anyway) dictatorship. Far from the egalitarian vision of Marx, Stalinism led to an ever deepening chasm between rich and poor; the only difference was that the rich were also now the elite of the only political party allowed to exist. Some commentators have described Stalinism as a form of left-wing fascism but that's a perversion of the word. While both were highly authoritarian, fascism and communism are specific and quite different sets of reasons for being so.
There were and are many different minor variations of Communist theory; from Trotskyism to Maoism and Luxemburgism (named after Rosa Luxemburg and nothing to do with the country) to even forms of Christian Communism (contrary to popular belief, athieism, while the official position, was never a very major part of Marxist thought), but to spend much time dealing with them would be folly. Communism has been proven by history to be unworkable and to lead to undesireable and unpleasent results when it is employed on any kind of mass scale. The vision of Marx and Engels can be marked down as a classic case of "did not think this through enough".
I mentioned earlier that Lenin was quite wrong in his assertion that socialism was merely an intermediate step between capitalism and communism. I say this because history has proven it to be the case. In my own Britain, the Labour Party was explicitely socialist for most of it's existence. Clause Four of the Labour Party manifesto called for collective ownership of the means of production and distribution, a section that was only removed with Tony Blair's leadership of the party in 1994 (Blairites described it as the "new" Labour Party for exactly this reason). During it's time as a socialist party, Labour ruled Britain several times. Some administrations were good (Clement Attlee), others were bad and one (that of James Calaghan) was a disaster, but none turned Britain into the UKSR or even attempted to do so. The NHS ticks along year after year, decade after decade but it's staff have never mentioned a Bolshevik uprising. In the USA, Social Security operates as a partially socialised system. As does the Veteran's Association but neither have ever led to tanks in the streets and an all powerful police state (and, as mentioned above, that would be a perversion of Communism anyway). In fact, given the Constitution of the USA, it's citizens general attitude of "live free or fuck off" and the prevelence of firearms, it's difficult to see why the average American citizen is so terrified of socialism. Americans tend to treat socialism as something akin to a zombie-causing virus; a nightmare which, once admitted even slightly, will inevitibly transport the entire nation to 1955 Moscow. History, and the attitudes of most Americans say that not only will that not happen but that, absent a sea change in public values and morality, it cannot happen. And yet, we have, at time of writing, a whole cottage industry in the USA dedicated to describing the current president as a Communist. This is not just a perversion of the term but such wilfull and deliberate stupidity that one is tempted to suggest steralisation to avoid further pollution of the gene pool. Taking equity in a miniscule part of the economic structure cannot be described as socialism in any rational way, especially when there are still competing private companies. Rather, this assertion seems to be based entirely on the very short memory of many Americans and the fact that the administration preceding (that of George W. Bush) was inarguably the most right-wing in US history. Over the eight years of Bush's reign of error, the centre of political discourse seems to have been reset to somewhere around Attila the Hun. When the standard for political discourse is set by Dick Cheney, a man so cartoonishly evil that parody becomes impossible, even the moderate Obama looks like a raving radical of the left.
Finally, a brief word about the author's own preferences. I am not a socialist. I consider socialism to lead to waste and abuse. Nor am I anti-capitalist. I am anti-corporatist. I believe that corporations are, as Bierce said, "an ingeneous device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility". I shan't speak further on that here, see my other essays for elaboration. Which I am, in relation to this essay, is a believer in a socialised option in certain essential services (again, defined further elsewhere) whereby, the competition between private and socialised options benefits the consumer and keeps the abuses of both to a minimum.
ADDENDUM: In contrast to the delusional theories which Foxwood replied to my last entry with, Communism hasn't been "fashionable" in the USA since the mid-sixties and wasn't all that popular then. The hippies and flower children of the Sixties weren't Communists (unless, like Foxwood, you consider Joe McCarthy to be a role model), they were just pissed off with a political system which alternatively marginalised them or tried to send them to Vietnam to be killed. Contrary to the McCarthyite ramblings of Foxwood and his overlord, Glenn Beck, the president isn't a Communist, a socialist or even especially liberal; there aren't hordes of "godless commies" in the Obama administration or the schools, colleges or universities; the overwhelming majority of teachers and students at any level of education in the USA hold fairly conventional political beliefs and your country is about as far from Communism as it's possible to be and still be a functional democracy. Newsflash guys: McCarthy is dead, he was an evil monster when he was alive and he was and you remain, just plain wrong about absolutely everything.