The renewed relevance of Engels’ classic, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’

Frederick Engles (Wikimedia commons)

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ should be read and studied by socialists, worker-activists and young people interested in socialist ideas, as it greatly adds to our understanding of the roots of socialism and the tasks the working class need to conquer to fundamentally change society. This short pamphlet by Friedrich Engels, is, along with the Communist Manifesto, one of the best and most significant introductions to Marxism.

Written and published by Engels, in 1880, it was originally a part of the much longer work, ‘Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science’ – better known as ‘Anti-Dühring’ (published in 1878). Replying to Dühring – a well-known German academic whose ideas were having a negative and disorientating effect on the socialist movement in Germany, at the time – allowed Engels to develop in his book the main ideas and concepts of Marxism relating to philosophy, natural science and history. In particular, Engels discusses the development of the classes and class struggle, in each historical epoch and social system. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific was a reworking of three chapters from Anti-Dühring in a more accessible form to give an account of the origin and development of socialist ideas and the Marxist theory of history, also known as ‘historical materialism’. Both of these works were used as basic education studies in the German workers’ movement.

Although written in another historical era, the ideas contained in this short pamphlet are fully relevant today. They help us to understand and answer the ideas of today’s ‘utopian socialists’. These re-emerged following the rise of the Occupy movement and other ‘new left’ formations, like PODEMOS, in Spain, and Momentum in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in Britain. It is against the background of the rebuilding of the workers’ and socialist movement – following the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes in the former USSR and Eastern Europe – that some of the old ‘utopian socialist’ ideas have re-emerged.

Engels, in this marvellous pamphlet, traces the emergence of socialist ideas through different historical eras and stages of development in society, culminating in the ideas of scientific socialism, formulated by himself and Karl Marx.

French revolution

In the 18th century, French material philosophers, who helped pave the way for the Great French (bourgeois) revolution, in 1789, were a major major influence on the development of early socialist thinkers. They argued that the existing social and political order was irrational. As Engels explained, they wanted to replace such irrationality with 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 explained that these philosophers believed they were defending universal truths for all of humankind. In reality, they were articulating ideas that represented the interests of the then emerging and rising bourgeoisie and the system of capitalism. They wanted an end to the limitations of the old feudal social order and the privileges within it. However, they did not want to abolish classes. After all, the capitalists cannot exist without wage workers. As capitalism grew and developed, so did the modern working class. This gave rise to even more radical ideas.

Radical socialist or early communistic ideas had begun to develop during the English civil war in the 17th century around the Levellers and other radical groupings, and in the back streets of Paris during the French revolution, with the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’, and its leaders, like François-Noel Babeuf. However, important as these developments were, they did not amount to the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels but rather an idealistic anticipation of a future communistic society and rejection of brutal class society. They reflected the plebeian – the mixed class character of workers and the poor – of these social movements. The development of modern capitalism and the modern working class was needed before such ideas could be fully developed in a scientific manner, with an understanding of the struggle between the two main opposing class interests of the bourgeoisie and the working class. Yet these, and other movements represented a bridge to the eventual evolution of the ideas of scientific socialism.

The early socialistic ideas were developed further by the emergence of the great utopian socialists in the 19th century – the “three great utopians” as Engels called them; Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, in France, and Robert Owen, in Britain. Engels clearly had great admiration for these figures and deals in some detail with the ideas and works of Robert Owen in this pamphlet. Their clear and piercing denunciations of capitalism and pioneering attempts at building a new model society offered a glimpse of what would be possible through the building of a socialist society.

However, despite representing a leap forward in offering an alternative society to capitalism, they remained imprisoned within the relatively limited development of capitalism and the working class itself. They, like their 18th-century predecessors, abstractly appealed to reason and justice and for people to act and behave differently. They failed to grasp that the ruling capitalist class acted as it did out of defending its own class interests and that a struggle by the working class to overthrow the capitalist class was essential to begin to build socialism.

In the case of Robert Owen, he took initiatives to establish co-operatives, which were run on a co-operative basis by those in the community, working in the same interests. In Scotland, Owen established such a co-operative in New Lanark. Later, he travelled to the United States and formed a local ‘society’ in New Harmony, Indiana. They were, essentially, attempts to build an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism, by which Owen hoped others would follow his example.

Inevitably all of them failed and, eventually, Owen lost some of his wealth to these ventures – becoming more and more radical in his ideas, as he aged, and was ostracised by ‘official society.’

It was to take a further development of capitalist society and the working class before scientific socialist ideas could be developed by the herculean contribution of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

Yet in the modern era, the arguments of Engels in this pamphlet still find full validity. For, once again, the ideas currently being advocated by some on the ‘new left’ are but an echo of the utopian socialists of the past. But today is much less justification than in the past for these ideas because of the bitter, open class divisions which exist in modern capitalism.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras seemed to imagine it was sufficient to appeal to the ‘reason’ and ‘justice’ of German imperialism and the EU to convince them not to impose a brutal austerity on the Greek people. Their answer was a predictable and firm ‘no’, as they uncompromisingly acted to defend their class interests.

In Britain, Paul Mason, and others on the left have exposed the brutalities and horrors of modern day capitalism. Yet what is the solution Mason has advocated? Having turned away from Marxism and Trotskyism, which he now rejects, Mason was influenced by the Occupy movement. He has pointed to the emergence of “parallel currencies, time banks, co-operatives and self- managed spaces…new forms of ownership, new forms of lending…” In his book, ‘PostCapitalism’, Mason writes that such ideas “offers an escape route – but only if these micro-level projects are nurtured, promoted and protected”. By who and how we are not told.

In fact, these sorts of ideas are a return to the utopian projects of Robert Owen. At that time, they represented an important milestone in the development of socialist ideas. They gave way, after an inevitable demise, to the ideas of scientific socialism of Marx and Engels. In today’s’ era of modern capitalist society, rather than representing something “new,” as claimed by their supporters, they represent a step backwards in terms of socialist ideas and socialist programme.

‘Socialism in the 21st century’

In Latin America, ‘Socialism in the 21st century’, was propagated in Venezuela, by Hugo Chavez, and echoed by Evo Morales, in Bolivia. This was, its supporters claimed, to be a new form of socialism. It included the establishment of co-operatives and buying up a percentage of shares to establish ‘mixed enterprises’. Where the working class is weak or not fully organised, support for the idea of co-operatives can develop amongst workers faced with the closure of their workplaces etc. Socialists, of course, adopt a sympathetic attitude to this development, where workers can see no alternative. This developed in Argentina following the crisis in 2002, and, in some cases, the more industrialised countries, including Britain.

Yet Chavez and Morales supported such developments without explaining the limitations of them. The idea was put forward of building an alternative to capitalism, within the framework of capitalism, and not ending it. Inevitably, the decisive sectors of the capitalist economy maintained their control and consumed the “alternative” co-ops and enterprises.

Following the economic collapse in Argentina, in 2002, workers took over factories and tried to establish co-operatives. The majority of these islands of elements of workers’ control were swallowed up by the sea of capitalism which surrounded them.

In Italy, within the Potere al Popolo movement, the idea of “mutualismo” is widely discussed and involves setting up “help points and co-operatives” to deal with people’s problems.

The scientific socialist ideas contained in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific are a crucial tool for understanding the functioning of capitalist society and the struggle between the working class and poor and the ruling class. They answer the utopian notion that it is possible to appeal to the “reason” and “sense of justice” of the capitalist class and their political representatives. It also provides a clear answer to those who argue that alternatives to capitalism can be constructed within a capitalist framework, without transforming the entire system and beginning to build a democratic socialist alternative by the working class.

Capitalist society has undergone many changes since Engels wrote this pamphlet. So has the working class. Some left commentators, like Paul Mason, or Pablo Iglesias, the leader of PODEMOS in Spain, have turned away from the working class as a force for transforming society. Mason dismisses it as a force today due to a weakening of the manufacturing industry that has taken place in many countries.

There has clearly been a decline of the traditional industrial working class in the advanced industrialised countries. However, it still exists and is potentially a powerful force. Workers in the rail industry, airports, communications, and in the remaining industrial sectors, are still a force with immense potential industrial power. On a global scale, the specific weight of the working class has increased due to the industrialisation of countries like China, Brazil, India and others.

At the same time, there is an increasing proletarianisation of formerly middle-class layers, who have been devastated by the crisis in 2007/8. Teachers, doctors, civil servants and others, have been radicalised, and increasingly take up the methods of struggle of the working class.

New layers of the working class, including extremely exploited young people on precarious contracts, like the young workers at Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon and McDonalds, are beginning to take up methods of struggle of the working class and get organised. This is in its embryonic stages but still is extremely significant for the workers’ and socialist movement.

A reading or rereading of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific will be very rewarding: it can assist the new generation in the struggle to rebuild the workers’ and socialist movement, as an instrument to replace capitalism with socialism.


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October 2018