The Guardian • Issue #1969

Socialism: utopian and scientific: a guide


This series will be dedicated to explaining and elaborating the concepts found in Frederick Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, published in 1880. Our aim is to cover more classic communist texts in the future to hopefully make them more accessible and digestible. This text can either be found in the CPA’s bookshop or searching the title online. It is critical that as communists we have a firm grasp on the theoretical concepts which not only structure our analyses but also guide our practice and organisation. The inverse is also true; our practical experience is essential for testing and verifying the validity of our theories. Communist theory is not a dogma. On the contrary, it is a living, breathing philosophy that must not only criticise the existing capitalist order but self-criticise when our theories don’t correspond with reality. Without these two sides of criticism, communist theory will never be able to change the world through its practice. As was famously written on Marx’s grave, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This quote, however, was not some abstract statement simply aimed at philosophers, it laid the foundation for all of us engaged in understanding and abolishing capitalism.

This distinction between interpretation and transformation (or change, as Marx put it) is precisely what we’ll be examining throughout Engels’ book. Engels places the utopian version of socialism on the side of mere interpretation and scientific on the side of transformation. As a result, the book brings to light many fundamental and highly contentious principles of Marx’s thought and communism in general. Can socialism really be considered a “science”? What is Historical Materialism? Why does the distinction between scientific and utopian even matter? What contemporary relevance does a book written in Europe over 140 years ago have for us?

This last question forms the core of what this series hopes to demonstrate. The works of communism are not antiquated ideas, only of interest to petty academic squabbles. They form an enormous historical body of work born out of the struggles of revolutionary movements that continue to this day. Communism does not put the cart before the horse, as we shall see in this book. Instead, rather than abstractly imagining how society could be, it draws its knowledge from the activity of the working class and its revolutionary movement towards the creation of a new society.

For many of what we call the “hard” sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc., calling socialism a “science” is an abomination. They hold that their methodology cannot be applied to political, social, and historical phenomena. To properly respond to their grievances would take tomes so we shall leave that question to the side and simply explain what communists mean when we say scientific socialism.

Throughout this brief introduction, we’ve been using communism and socialism interchangeably, however, there is a theoretical difference between the two so we will henceforth be using socialism since that’s what Engels uses.

In the introduction to the English edition of the text Engels emphasises the word “materialism” to orient not only the philosophical position of socialism but also its historical and economic analysis. So, to understand everything else, we must first understand materialism. Put in its simplest definition, materialism states that everything in the world is entirely composed of matter. Even human thought is a complex arrangement of matter, so matter exists prior to human’s thinking about it. It follows from this that objects in the world, take your pick of any or all objects around you, have an independent existence from how you think about them, however, because they are also composed of matter, we are able to know them. This is contrasted with “idealism” which says human thought comes before matter. However, this position is accompanied by all sorts of limitations placed on human thought and its ability to fully “know” the objects around us.

So why is this distinction relevant to the concepts we’ll be exploring? Engels places scientific socialism on the side of materialism, and utopian socialism on the side of idealism. Suppose the world is not entirely composed of matter, and human thought somehow has a mystical quality that is beyond matter. In that case, our ability to analyse reality will always be limited. Idealism is forced to resort to all sorts of strange justifications about what special quality human thought possesses that nothing else in the universe does. To accept idealism is to be plagued by that odd exception of human thought at each step of your analysis of the material conditions of the world. In its most extreme form, idealism contends that the world is entirely a product of human thought, or that human thought is limited and that we can’t fully understand objects. This naturally creates problems when trying to analyse more complex processes like economic forces, history etc. This is not to say that our senses never deceive us but that through the process of testing and verifying our engagement with matter/objects, we can arrive at the correct understanding of them. This process of verification is what allows materialism to be deemed scientific.

On this point, Marx and Engels were able to start building their understanding of the mechanics of capitalist society: its economy, history, and the way class struggle operates within it. From the basis of materialism, Marx and Engels were able to demonstrate all of their theories of capitalist society. It is what allows us to comprehend the fundamental class division of society into the capitalists, who own the means of production, and those who have nothing to sell but their labour power, the working class. It tells us that the changes within society occur with the shifts in economic modes of production and that these shifts generate more and more antagonisms between classes. This eventually culminates in a social upheaval creating a new economic mode of production controlled by a new class. Engels tells us that one need only look at transition from the Middle Ages to modern industrial production and all its accompanying revolutions to affirm these points.

In summary, Engels uses the term “historical materialism”:

“to designate that view of the course of history which 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.”

Now with these building blocks, we may return to the matter at hand: the scientific conception of socialism versus the utopian version. Engels begins with his criticism of utopian socialism which he historically locates as starting in France in the 18th century, with earlier “theoretical manifestations” in 16th and 17th century England. The intellectual efforts of the French were hellbent on tearing down all the institutions of feudalism. However, in their frenzied efforts, their socialism became detached from the material reality of class division. They saw the emergence of the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) as the real transformative force that would do away with religious authoritarianism of feudalism and so they took their side. The capitalists preached that the universal freedom and equality of all peoples could only be realised in the absolute freedom of the market and for the market to be truly free, private property must become an essential right. However, as Engels noted, “this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man.”

This was the trap that the utopian socialists fell into, in their dreams of an idealistic, utopian society where everyone has equal rights, they misunderstood the fundamental law of property under a capitalist system. What Engels called bourgeois property is also known as private property. Private property is the central pillar of capitalist economics as it defines which class dominates another. The capitalist, who owns private property (for example a business owner who employs people for wages or a landlord who extracts rent from tenants) possesses far more power in society over a member of the working class who can only sell their labour for wages (a portion of which has to go either into rent or a mortgage).

By making private property “one of the essential rights of man,” capitalists pulled a very effective sleight of hand that made it sound like they were preaching universal equality, but in reality, it was merely asserting its class dominance over those who didn’t possess property. This fundamental and insurmountable economic inequality is precisely what the utopian socialists missed, leading Engels to note that:

“Not one of them [utopian socialists] appears as a representative of the interests of that proletariat which historical development had, in the meantime, produced … they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once.”

Here we find the primary separation from the utopian socialists alongside the historical and contemporary relevance of the division. Scientific socialism first and foremost places the interests of the working class (proletariat) at the heart of its material analysis. It does not put its ideas in front of the working class and attempt to make them conform to utopian ideals, but rather develops its theory by analysing the concrete, revolutionary activity of the working class. This is how socialists are able to orient their practice to be in line with the interests of the working class, they reciprocally inform one another.

To conclude this part of the series, we have seen how Engels makes the distinction between utopian and scientific socialism rest upon the respective division between idealism and materialism. Utopian socialism places ideals above material conditions, to the brutal detriment of the working class. Whereas scientific socialism examines the material conditions of capitalist society to understand how one class dominates the other. Next time we will further examine the building blocks of scientific socialism.

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