As the use of these terms has developed, "socialism" has come to have a more general meaning. The public ownership of property advocated by socialists today can vary widely, from cooperative enterprises to complete control of the economy by national governments. Socialist governments or parties may be democratic or may favor a system of rule by a single political party. Socialist governments in democratic countries generally prefer public ownership of only selected key elements of the economy--banks, transportation, and energy industries, for example. Some Socialist parties are strongly opposed to Communism.

"Communism" usually refers to the program of the Communist parties. This program is characterized by Communist party control over all political and social activity in a country and by central planning of its economy. Communists believed that their system would spread to all countries, and they supported Communist revolutions when the opportunity arose. Communists also use the term "socialism" to describe the intermediate stage of development, before societies can achieve the long-term goal of Communism. This goal of the ideal Communist state can come about only when societies are productive enough to satisfy all human needs on a basis of equality.