Democracy, communism and socialism have been used in different contexts to refer to a range of different political forms. In general, democracy refers to a political system in which the people rule. Socialism and communism both refer to an economic system in which the means of production are publicly rather than privately owned. Many socialists and communists argue that public ownership of the means of production is a way of deepening or expanding democracy, since it extends the rule of the people to the realm of economic production.

Private Property

Both communism and socialism are alternatives to capitalism. Although scholars continue to debate the relationship between capitalism and democracy, socialists and communists believe that democracy, too, could be an alternative to capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system based on wage labor, the accumulation of capital and private ownership of the means of production. The means of production in this context means anything that can be used to produce commodities for the market, such as a factory, a farm or even the computers at a software firm. Whereas in capitalism these means of production are the private property of their owners, production would be publicly rather than privately owned in both socialism and communism, as it would be in a non-capitalist democracy.

Production and Markets

Public ownership of the means of production means that factories, farms and enterprises are in the hands of the state rather than private capitalists. Sometimes socialism and communism are used to refer to different stages in the transition from private to public ownership. For example, scholars such as Leszek Kolakowski describe socialism as a preliminary stage in which the government begins consolidating ownership of productive property, yet the distribution of good and services continues to be guided through markets. After this stage is complete, society enters into communism, meaning that all production is in public hands and conscientious planning replaces the market as a means of providing for goods and services. This idea also overlaps with democracy, since it states that the people as a whole and as a community would make decisions about their economic life.

Democratic Socialism

According to some socialists and communists, true democracy can only be realized under a form of socialism or communism. The reason for this is that under capitalism, democracy is restricted to the political sphere of formal rights and lawmaking. However, the economic sphere, which is where people often encounter concrete forms of power and oppression, is regarded as non-political. Socialism and communism rectify this split by subjecting all aspects of life, including production and consumption, to democratic processes of deliberation and control.

Anti-Democratic Communism

Other scholars, such as Richard Pipes, see communism as the opposite of democracy. They frequently draw on the experiences of Soviet-type societies in Asia and Eastern Europe, arguing that any attempt to control private enterprise is destructive to democracy and leads to dictatorship and the suppression of rights. However, while the communist dictatorships of the 20th century were undoubtedly non-democratic, the exact relationship between democracy and private property remains contested.