Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

April 11, 2008

Phil Gasper introduces a short work by Frederick Engels that provides a popular account of historical materialism.

FREDERICK ENGELS' pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is--alongside The Communist Manifesto--the best short introduction to Marxism.

It was originally part of a much longer work that Engels, Karl Marx's lifelong friend and collaborator, published in 1878: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science (often known as the Anti-Dühring)--a polemical response to the confused ideas of a German academic whose views were having a negative influence on the socialist movement in that country.

Dühring's theories have long since disappeared into the dustbin of history, but they gave Engels the opportunity to write a detailed exposition of Marxist philosophy. As he put it in a letter to Marx, the book was "an encyclopedic survey of our conception of the philosophical, natural-science and historical problems."

A few years later, at the request of French socialists, Engels reworked three of the chapters from Anti-Dühring to create a popular account of the origin of socialist ideas and the Marxist theory of history, which he calls "historical materialism."

But Engels' pamphlet is not just an exposition of the Marxist view of history. It is also an attempt to put it into practice.

As he explained in the introduction to the first English edition (published in 1892), historical materialism "seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another."

ENGELS APPLIES this perspective to explaining the origins of socialism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

So he begins Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, by stating, "Modern socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonism existing in the society of today between...capitalists and wage workers; on the other hand of the anarchy existing in production."

But while every set of ideas has material roots, the people who develop it inevitably draw on existing ideas in doing so.

What else to read

In the case of the first socialists, the ideas of the 18th century French materialist philosophers, which had helped pave the way for the French Revolution of 1789, were one major influence.

Eighteenth-century French thinkers attacked existing society, its institutions and traditions, as fundamentally irrational, and proposed in its place a "kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man," Engels wrote.

But while these philosophers believed they were articulating universal truths for all humanity, Engels points out that in reality, they were putting forward ideas that represented the perspective of the rising bourgeoisie (the capitalist class), which wanted, for example, to abolish class privileges in the legal system, but not social classes themselves.

But because, Engels went on, "capitalists cannot exist without wage workers," as the bourgeoisie grew, so did the modern working class, giving rise to more radical ideas, including "[u]topian pictures of ideal social conditions," based on common ownership and the abolition of class distinctions.

Ideas of this sort go back at least as far as the 16th century, but were developed in greatest detail in the decades after the French Revolution by "the three great Utopians," as Engels called them--Claude Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier in France, and Robert Owen in Britain.

Engels clearly has enormous admiration for all three of these figures and their criticisms of bourgeois society, but he also points out the limitations of their ideas, which were rooted in the fact that capitalism was not yet fully developed.

None of these utopian socialists offered a clear class perspective. Like the 18th century philosophers who preceded them, they appealed to abstract principles of pure reason and justice. But unlike their predecessors, they held that such principles revealed capitalism to be irrational and unjust. From their point of view, as Engels wrote:

If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chain of historical development, but a mere happy accident.

The theoretical weakness of utopian socialism was that it could not explain why its ideas had emerged when they did, rather than earlier or later. The practical weakness was that it offered no strategy to bring about socialism, apart from persuading others by argument and example that it was a more rational way of organizing society.

But if those currently in power--the capitalist owners of the means of production and their supporters in government and in the military--reject this conclusion, as they surely will, how is socialism to be brought about?

TO ANSWER this question we need a more scientific understanding of how societies develop and change, and here Engels argues that the ideas of German philosophy--and in particular, those of Hegel, with their emphasis on "dialectics as the highest form of reasoning"--are invaluable.

In Hegel's philosophy, Engels wrote:

[T]he whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.

From this point of view, the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment-seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself.

The weakness of Hegel's approach was that he saw historical development as being driven by a clash of ideas, rather than by a clash of material and economic interests.

But as capitalism developed in the early 19th century, "class struggle between proletariat [wage workers] and bourgeoisie came to the front in the history of the most advanced countries in Europe," Engels wrote, increasingly giving "the lie to the teachings of bourgeois economy as to the identity of the interests of capital and labor, as to the universal harmony and universal prosperity that would be the consequence of unbridled competition."

Historical circumstances themselves now made it possible to merge dialectics with an understanding of the centrality of class struggle and the underlying economic structures that give rise to it, leading to the historical materialist analysis of society outlined earlier.

The task of socialism, writes Engels, was "no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which [the proletariat and the bourgeoisie] and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict."

The final, and longest, section of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific sketches a Marxist analysis of capitalism, focusing on the growing contradictions between a system of production that is increasingly socialized, and a system of appropriation that leaves ownership in the hands of individuals.

Modern economies depend on a complex division of labor and cooperation between vast numbers of individuals in the process of production, but under capitalism, ownership of the means of production and the wealth that they generate is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority.

Following Marx's analysis in Capital, Engels shows how this contradiction inevitably gives rise to the recurrent economic crises that have plagued capitalism since it first emerged. Engels' description seems to fit the contemporary world just as well as it did the capitalism of the 19th century:

In every crisis, society is suffocated beneath the weight of its own productive forces and products, which it cannot use, and stands helpless face to face with the absurd contradiction that the producers have nothing to consume, because consumers are wanting.

The only solution to this contradiction is social ownership of the means of production to permit the economy to be rationally planned, and only the modern working class has the power to bring this about. History has thus not only posed the problem of capitalism's destructive crises, but also created the conditions that permit its resolution.

Engels' pamphlet was written with the hope that if the working-class movement has a clear understanding of the problem, then it will be more likely to successfully bring about the solution.

Further Reading

From the archives