An abstract painting by Russian revolutionary artist Kazimir Malevich, date/title unknown. A painting by Russian revolutionary artist Kazimir Malevich, date/title unknown.

Engels’ popular pamphlet offers one of the best concise accounts of capitalist development and an accessible introduction to Marx’s revolutionary socialism, writes John Rees

Frederick Engels’ Socialism: utopian and scientific is a startling book, especially for those reading it for the first time. Although it was intended as a popular pamphlet, Engels’ work is much more than a simple condemnation of the evils of capitalism as it appeared in 1880. Such a pamphlet would have dated very quickly.

The secret of the continuing relevance of Socialism: utopian and scientific is its deeply historical structure. The account of the crisis of feudalism and the emergence of the capitalist class and the working class from the old agricultural and urban guild structures of medieval Europe is so expertly and concisely handled that repetition here is pointless. But there are a series of issues with which Engels deals that are, nevertheless, worth highlighting.

The first is the specific attention which Engels pays to the development of capitalism in England. His ‘Introduction to the first English Edition’ substantially adds to the passages in the main body of the book. After a few pages discussing the circumstances in which he came to write Socialism: utopian and scientific and some passages discussing the emergence of materialist ideas in England after the revolution of the 1640s, Engels launches into one of the best concise accounts of the development of capitalism in England available anywhere, carefully tracing the political and institutional changes which accompanied the English bourgeoisie’s ascent from the English revolution to the parliamentary reform acts of the nineteenth century.

The second notable point about Socialism: utopian and scientific is the care with which it treats the battle of ideas which accompanied the emergence of capitalism. At every point Engels is an accurate and sensitive observer of the ideological scene—whether it be the emergence of rational, scientific ideas as a challenge to religious mysticism during the eighteenth century Enlightenment, or the importance of Calvin’s Protestant individualism in revolt against the ideological fortress of feudalism, the Catholic church, or the English bourgeoisie’s first heroic embrace of science after the English Revolution and its subsequent retreat into shamefaced religion in order to better control the new working class. Finally, Engels surveys the battle for socialist ideas among the new working class. This concern with ideas can only come as another surprise to those who only know of the theories of Engels and Karl Marx from their critics. Marxism, after all, is often said to be crudely economistic and therefore unable to account for how ideas change and develop. Nothing, as even the briefest acquaintance with these passages in Socialism: utopian and scientific will show, could be further from the truth.

What Engels would not countenance, however is a radical separation of the social and economic conditions under which people live their lives and the ideas which they hold about those lives. Yet it is just this which Engels’ latter day critics would like to force upon contemporary Marxists. The importance of Engels’ approach comes through strongly in the passages in which he describes the fundamental features of the capitalist system as it emerged from its long historical development. In this Engels proves his powers of analysis are as great as his powers of historical description. He captures the two fundamental divisions which make a society capitalist: ‘on the one hand… the class antagonisms prevailing in modern society between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage workers, and on the other… the anarchy ruling in production.’

Here Engels isolates the two interlocking contradictions which have governed the development of the capitalist system from its beginnings, through Engels’ time, to our own. The uncontrolled competition for profit between the different capitalist enterprises, the ‘anarchy ruling in production’, ensures that the struggle between the classes—over the length of the working day, over the productivity of labour and thus over jobs and wages—is an endemic not accidental, feature of the system. And the same planless pursuit of profit also produces economic crises where although ‘means of production, means of subsistence, available workers, all the elements of production and of general wealth are there in abundance’ they lie idle because ‘in capitalist society the means of production cannot begin to function unless they have first been converted into capital, into the means for exploitation of human labour power’. The need for the capitalists to turn a profit ‘stands like a ghost’ between the workers and the means for their subsistence. In this respect at least the first years of the twenty-first century appear very like the last years of the nineteenth century.

But for all the similarities that modern capitalism shares with its previous incarnations, Engels would have been the last to claim that the system remained the same as it aged. One significant change is foreshadowed in Engels’ discussion of the Marxist attitude to state ownership of industry. Again, those who have heard left wing Labour Party members argue that nationalisation is inherently socialist, or listened to those who believed that the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe were socialist because the state controlled the economy, will be surprised.

Engels’ historical perspective allows him to show how competition between different capitalist firms led to the bankruptcy of the least profitable, the growth of the more profitable, to merger and takeover and, as an inevitable result, to the rise of joint stock companies, trusts and monopolies. Finally, as part of same process, the state is forced to take a hand the direct management of the economy. But, Engels insists, this does not make the state a ‘socialist state’: ‘The modern state, whatever its form, is an essentially capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal aggregate capitalist. The more productive forces it takes over into its possession, the more it becomes a real aggregate capitalist, the more citizens it exploits. The workers remain wage workers, proletarians. The capitalist relationship is not abolished, rather it is pushed to the limit.’

If carrying out nationalisation alone were enough to define a socialist, jokes Engels, then Bismarck’s nationalisation of the Prussian railways would make him a socialist, Napoleon and Metternich’s nationalisation of the tobacco trade would make them socialists and ‘the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal Porcelain Manufacture, and even the regimental tailors in the army would be socialist institutions.’

So long as class society exists the state will remain a mechanism for the ‘forcible holding down of the exploited class in conditions of oppression (slavery, villeinage or serfdom, wage labour) given by the existing mode of production. Only when the rule of the old order, both in its economic and political aspects, has been broken in a revolution can workers begin to run society for themselves, along lines that they themselves decide. In the first instance they will create their own state, but a state radically different from any that has gone before—a democratic state in which, for the first time since the pre-history of humanity, the majority democratically control the political realm because they also control the social and economic realm.

But even this state will not last long: ‘As soon as there is no class to be held in subjection any longer, as soon as class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on anarchy of production existing up to now are eliminated… there is nothing left to repress, nothing necessitating a special repressive force, a state. The first act in which that state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society—the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—is at the same time its last independent act as a state.’ And so Engels concludes, in a phrase that has become famous as a definition of a socialist society, ‘The interference of the state power in social relations become superfluous in one sphere after another, and then it dies away of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not abolished, it withers away.’

Engels’ clarity on the question of state ownership is a function of the fact that, by 1880, many of the trends that were to become so marked in twentieth century capitalism were already visible. Nationalisation was one outgrowth of the process of competition; the recruitment of a layer of salaried managers by the capitalists themselves was another. This phenomenon, later highlighted by myriad sociologists as proof that capitalism has changed its spots, had a rather different significance for Engels. For him it was proof that the older the system becomes the more the collective and social nature of production conflicts with the private ownership of the means of production, forcing even the capitalists to delegate some of their functions to a social layer which was with them but not of them, shared their interests but was not identical with them. This development really showed that the capitalist class had become superfluous, could be ‘dispensed with’ since ‘all the social functions of the capitalist are now conducted by salaried employees.’

Ironically, perhaps the only passages in Socialism: utopian and scientific which appear dated are those which refer to the utopian socialists of the title. Engels explains the conditions under which utopian socialism arose as the period between the end of the great French Revolution and the emergence of an organised and independent working class movement in the 1830s. During that transitory period the working class was still forming itself amidst the great mass of propertyless poor created by the final decomposition of the feudal system and the emergence of the capitalist system. At this time ‘the proletariat, which was only just separating itself from these propertyless masses as the nucleus of a new class and was as yet quite incapable of independent political action, appeared as an oppressed, suffering estate, to which, in its incapacity to help itself, help could at best be brought from without, from above down.’

To this practical situation the utopian socialists brought ideas forged by an encounter with the philosophers of the Enlightenment. If society presented nothing but abuses then ‘to remove them was the task of reason. It was a question of inventing a new more perfect social order and of imposing it on society from without by propaganda and wherever possible by the example of model experiments.’ Before trades unions, before general strikes and workers’ insurrections, before workers’ councils—that is before the idea of workers’ self-emancipation formed the heart of Marxism—and with the whole Enlightenment tradition as the only intellectual weapon to hand all this was the unavoidable starting point of the socialist movement. By the 1830s and 1840s ideas began to change. But before ideas changed, reality changed. ‘In the beginning’, as Engels notes, ‘was the deed’. And in this case the deeds were those of workers in struggle: ‘In 1831, the first working class rising took place in Lyon; between 1838 and 1842, the first national working class movement, that of the English Chartists, reached its height. The class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie came to the front in the history of the most advanced countries in Europe’. But after nearly 150 years of such struggles, surely a critique of such primitive notions is little use to socialists today.

This is not the case. Utopian socialist politics are still with us, though they have been regenerated in very different conditions to those which gave birth to the first utopians. Then they were a product of the absolute immaturity of the working class, but modern day utopianism can arise as a product of defeat and demoralisation in the working class movement. Both points of origin share the touchstone of utopianism: the belief that workers themselves cannot or will not fight for socialism and that it will therefore have to be imposed from above. The late 1970s and 1980s in Britain, as in the United States and much of Europe, was a period of retreat for the workers’ movement. Among some supporters of the Meriden motorcycle co-operative and the Lucas Plan for alternative production, the peace camps of the Greenham Common, and the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone a new utopian trend could be observed. In the 1990s and early 2000s a related trend emerged in parts of the anti-capitalist movement and among some of the Occupy generation. During the upheavals of 1968 and in the midst of the class struggles of the early 1970s, a concentration on workers’ self activity had resulted in the rebirth of a genuine, if minority, revolutionary tradition. But later the ebbing of the struggle gave birth to a mood that saw partial reform or movements for reform as ends in themselves rather than as a step towards the wider transformation of society. Sometimes the movement itself, rather than any concrete outcome of the struggle, was seen as a precursor of a new society that could be sustained indefinitely within existing capitalist economies. Few of these movements had much lasting influence on the day to day struggles of workers but some did deliberately counterpose their schemes to the socialist tradition.

These trends often found some support in the Labour Party. Utopianism and gradual reformism may seem like strange bedfellows, but their common ground is a belief that socialism can be enacted without the self-emancipation of the working class as it overthrows the entire power structure of the system. Reformers committed to working within the system are often attracted by ‘the example of model experiments’ which are meant to convince the establishment of the virtue and reasonableness of socialism. Every reformer harbours a utopian illusion in his heart since both reformers and utopians see workers as a suffering mass in need of rescue, not as themselves a self-emancipating agent of change. There is just one vital difference between the first utopians and their latter day, and mostly unconscious, imitators. The first utopians were praised by Engels as heroic figures, daring to think ahead of their time and wishing for a genuine revolution in the way society was ordered. Modern day utopians, for all the grandeur of their plans, fall far below that of which history has already shown the workers’ movement to be capable. They consciously oppose themselves to the revolutionary potential of the working class, whereas the first utopians acted through unavoidable ignorance of the real possibilities.

The final surprise in these pages is that, in a brief pamphlet, Engels spends a great deal of time discussing questions of method and philosophy. He clearly felt that no introduction to Marxism would be complete unless its readers could gain from it a clear idea of how the Marxist method differed from bourgeois philosophy. Engels is careful to distinguish historical materialism from two rival conceptions. One was the idealist tradition, originating in France but finding its most representative figures in the German philosophers Kant and Hegel who, in different ways, insisted that human thought was the motive force in history.  The other was the materialist tradition which arose in Britain as a result of the seventeenth century revolution, and the scientific revolution which accompanied it, and flourished in eighteenth century Enlightenment France, reaching its peak with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. This materialism reduced thought to a passive reflection of the world, robbing it of any active part in changing the world. Engels is a generous critic, paying tribute to both these pre-socialist trends of thought. But he is nonetheless insistent that they both represent partial truths.

The first, idealist, trend misses the fact that thoughts are ultimately ‘the more or less abstract images of actual things and processes’ and so were subject to change as historical circumstances changed. Thus the role of thought in human history is, in Engels’ view, a product of the fact that ‘human history is a process of development, which, by its very nature, cannot find its intellectual final term in the discovery of any so-called absolute truth.’ From religion to the stock objection that human nature is a barrier to socialism such arguments are still heard today. History, on these accounts, is simply the working out of certain predetermined patterns—in our minds, our genes, our soul—‘existing somehow from eternity before the world existed’.

The second, materialist, trend misses the point that thought does not simply reflect the world, it reacts upon it by guiding our actions. Indeed, Engels is insistent that the only way in which we can judge the correctness or otherwise of our views about the world is by engaging in action which seeks to change world. There is no other ultimate criteria.

In place of these two equally misconceived alternatives Engels gives a brilliant outline of the Marxist dialectic. It had been, Engels argues, ‘the greatest merit’ of the Hegelian system that ‘the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is for the first time represented as a process, ie, as in constant motion, change, transformation, development, and the attempt was made to show internal connections in this motion 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 judgement seat of mature philosophic reason and best forgotten as quickly as possible, but the process of the evolution of humanity itself.’

Any non-dialectical theory will fail to see the connections between the different aspects of the totality of human existence, fail to see the contradictions between the different elements of that totality which ensure that struggle and conflict result in change and development, not stability and quietism. Idealism breeds passivity by insisting that all we need to do is transform our thinking and the world will follow suit. Crude materialism ends in the same result by arguing that if we just wait on the world to change then peoples’ thinking will reflect those changes sooner or later. Non-dialectical theory, or metaphysical thinking to use Engels’ term, may produce very valuable results in specialised fields but it ‘inevitably bumps into a limit sooner or later, beyond which it becomes one sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions, because in the presence of individual things it forgets their connections; because in the presence of their existence it forgets their coming into being and passing away; because in their state of rest it forgets their motion.’

But dialectics ‘grasps things and their conceptual images essentially in their interconnection, in their concatenation, their motion, their coming into and passing out of existence.’ Engels’ whole analysis of the decomposition of feudalism and the rise of capitalism is a perfect example of such a dialectical analysis, combining an understanding of the fact that human beings can make their own history with an equally clear comprehension of the limits and possibilities imposed on such change by the material circumstances under which it takes place.

Very few authors manage to combine a clear, uncluttered, accessible writing style with deep insight into how society works and a comprehensive historical analysis of its development. Fewer still manage to combine both with brevity. Frederick Engels, perhaps even more than Karl Marx, was one who did. It is not surprising then that when Engels’ Socialism: utopian and scientific was first published it was even more popular than the Communist Manifesto as an introduction to revolutionary socialism.

(Note: An older version of this text was first published by Bookmarks, 1993 as the introduction to a republication of ‘Socialism: utopian and scientific’.)

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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