The purpose of this video is to give a straight forward and plain English explanation of the essay “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” by Frederick Engels. This is an essay largely misunderstood document by people who never read it. Immediately people assume Engels was saying that socialism is utopian and scientific. Thereby supposedly discrediting him (and by extension Marx) in social theory. No Marxist ever claimed their world view was utopian, only market fundamentalists do that.
In actuality the document explains the difference between socialism that is utopian and socialism that is scientific. There are several views of socialism that were discussed in the Communist Manifesto, utopian and scientific included. The point of this document was to explain why scientific socialism is the better choice and why utopian socialism is wrong.
With that said, what I am giving is only a rough guide to what is written in the document. This will hopefully give you a basic cover of what the document is about. After watching this video I suggest you read the document for yourself so that you may receive the full context and the full knowledge that is contained in the work. Again, this is only a brief overview and not a substitute for actually reading and understanding the document. It is only intended to give you a jump start in reading it.
I. The Development of Utopian Socialism
Modern socialism (of 1880) is the result of two elements: the class antagonisms of society (capitalist and worker), and the chaos that is commodity production.
The theoretical form of modern socialism comes from updating the theoretical work of French philosophers of the 18th century.
As this socialism was new it had to flow with the already accepted intellectual thoughts on it, even though it came from economic reality.
The theorists who began the socialist thought were true extreme radicals. They were not influenced by any prevailing ideologies.
These men nitpicked every single detail, nothing was allowed to exist in their ideology unless it had been examined extensively.
When they created their ideology everything was to be based on absolute reason. This was the radical break in social thought. Nothing from the pre-existing societies was preserved, no traditional ideas existed, none of the prejudices. The new idea of socialism was based entirely on eternal right and truth, based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.
Unfortunately this idealized version of society was nothing more than the building of bourgeoisie society. The equality got reduced to bourgeoisie property. This ownership of property became the inalienable right of man, This was the creation of the Rousseau Social Contract. Otherwise known as the democratic bourgeoisie republic.
The antagonisms of feudal society gave birth to the creation of the new society. The bourgeoisie rose up and declared themselves the representatives of everyone. The capitalists realized that they need power over the workers as the feudal class needed power over peasants. The difference is, the new ruling class of capitalists could claim to represent everyone, the landlords never even bothered to try.
There were theoretical ideas that came about as a result of various class uprisings in the 16th and 17th centuries. But these were utopian, just pictures of the perfect way of life and society. They were unattainable goals with no theory of how to reach them.
From this came 3 great Utopian Socialists:
– Saint-Simon: He united the middle-class and proletarian to a degree.
– Fourier and Owen: in the most developed capitalist countries they made proposals for removing classes based on French materialism.
Not one of them represented the proletariat. They claimed to wanted to liberate everyone, but their philosophies represented only the elite. They acted in the name of reason and justice, but were far from the French philosophers they claimed to be inspired by.
These three men only created the basis of the unjust irrational bourgeoisie system we have now.
The French philosophers, the forerunners of the Revolution did all they could to live by reason, to promote a rational government and society. However this “reason” was just an idealized version of the 18th century citizen that turned into how the bourgeoisie see themselves.
This new “rationality” only seemed rational when it was compared tot he previous feudal society. The new society was built upon “Rousseau’s Social Contract” which was unable to hold onto bourgeoisie power. Thus the bourgeoisie had to resort to the “reign of Terror” and Napoleonic despotism in order to hold onto it.
The new society of reason did not eliminate class divisions and create a more powerful one. It only altered the existing class relations. it created a “Freedom of property” that created the illusion that anyone can own property. (Legally anyone could.) Thus it transferred power from the landlord class to the bourgeoisie.
The bourgeois rule changed social relations as well. Instead of a knight removing a portion of crops from a peasant, a person was handed a cash payment for labour. The “fraternity” of the new society became trade and competition. Oppression was replaced by corruption, from the sword to gold as a social lever. Prostitution also increased astronomically.
The difficulty lied in the new social relations of production. The drive for socialism was based on the social relations feudalism. At this time capitalism was building. But the completeness of capitalism hadn’t shown itself yet. Meaning the class relations and how they were going to the take shape in capitalism hadn’t formed yet. The new form of exchange altered the relations between people economically and did not fit into the view of utopian socialism at that time.
Crude undeveloped conditions of capitalism and undeveloped class relations led to underdeveloped ideas about socialism. Not all the conditions of capitalism had revealed themselves because capitalism was still under development. So the great thinkers of socialism at the time attempted to guess what they were going to be and base their theories on those guesses.
A series of ideas of what socialism was were created because no one analyzed the full material reality of (what was) modern life. All these models were based on very abstract ideas not based on the real material conditions. The more the philosophers worked on a model of socialism that was not based on real conditions, the more it drifted into fantasies about socialist life. they were completely utopian because they were completely abstract ideas not created from an analysis of real conditions.
Obviously this is the fatal flaw in utopian ideas.
Saint-Simon had a great deal to do with the French Revolution. This revolution was one of the “3rd Estate” (the people). It was the working people over the idle rich people. But the victory of the people ended up being a victory of the bourgeoisie. The properties of the Royalty and the Church got put up for sale, mostly by fraud through military contracts. (My how things have changed!) It was the rule of these swindlers that almost destroyed France. This near ruin gave Napoleon the pretext for his coup d’etat.
Eventually people began to recognize that the French Revolution was a class war of three classes. A dynamic class war of nobility vs. bourgeois vs. the proletariat. It was also at this time that people first began to get the idea that economics dominates political institutions, they were not totally on top of this idea, but the breakthrough was just beginning to be understood.
At this time and a little after the French philosophy in the 18th century, the new German philosophy dialectics appeared.
The (then) modern formation of the dialectic was a continuation of dialectics from the past Greek philosophers. However then new thinkers of it had stuck it with a metaphysical mode of reasoning which gave it a very inflexible character. This however did not stop 18th century French philosophers from making their works on dialectics.
When we think about Nature in general, the history of mankind and our own intellectual activity, it all seems as though it is mess of random occurrences and relationships that affect other relationships. Everything changes, things come into being and then pass away.
As Engels said:
“We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine, and are connected.”
This just shows the overall picture, the whole scheme of things at once and does not allow us to see details that make up the picture. Because it does not allow us to see all the details, we can’t get the entire picture.
In a metaphysical view all “things and their mental reflexes” are isolated things that are analyzed singularly and apart from each other. They see something once, define it and place it back into the picture with no more thought given to it. “For him, a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis, one another.”
This was all well and good back in the day. It seemed like it was based common sense and therefore it was completely logical. However it has its limits, barriers of understanding that it cannot overcome because of its inability to investigate. Because of this metaphysics becomes one sided, restricted, abstract and hopelessly lost in contradiction because it cannot make out the connection between things. it ignores the beginning of things and the end of things, it ignores their motion.
This is the fundamental logic of capitalism. But more rigidly held by market fundamentalists, the Mises people. This is how they see the world, they take a supply and demand curve blog post and arrogantly demand that it is reality. They see labour as being nothing more than another commodity in that same supply and demand. Because of this they fail to see that labour is not like any other commodity, labour is human beings, human beings in motion that don’t act like chess pieces. Which goes a long way to explaining why their society and economic structure doesn’t work, never has worked and never will work. With an inability to see how forces interact with each other, or how people interact with each other, the only possible explanation of which must be the government. Its always someone else’s fault for their lack of understanding.
Metaphysics says a person is alive or not. In reality it is not that simple. No one knows when a fetus becomes a human being, or even when a collection of cells becomes a foetus. Because the creation of a human being is a process not an instantaneous event. Death is no different, a what point exactly a person is dead is not known.
An organized being is both itself and is not itself. We consume food and water adding matter to our bodies. Then we expel waste removing matter from it. During this time cells die off and new ones are created in a gigantic complicated process that is human life. “Every organized being is always itself, and yet something other than itself.”
An other aspect that formal logic (metaphysics) can’t come to terms with is the unit of opposites. Metaphysics say opposites are in conflict and they work against each other. However simple scientific analysis shows us that this is not (necessarily) the case. You have to have a positive and a negative for a magnet to work. You can’t have life without death. You can’t die unless you have lived, and you can’t live if there is only death. The opposites work with each other not against each other.
This also applies to cause and effect. A “cause” happens that creates and effect. That is simple and straight forward that even kindergarteners can understand. However formal logic stops here, where dialectics continues on. These “effects” that just took place then become the “causes” that create other “effects”. The universe and everything in it is one big entanglement of causes and effects. Metaphysics only sees one cause and effect moment and not their effects on the whole of the other causes and effects.
Only dialectics understand these things, not metaphysical reasoning. Dialectics understand processes that include the unity of opposites and the fact that things come into being and then leave. Metaphysics is a completely rigid system that cannot understand these things.
In fact only dialectics can explain evolution. Darwin laid down that evolution is a process that takes time to develop. However there appears to be jumps in evolution from one stage to another. At what point does homo-erectus become homo-sapien? When is the official change made?
Evolution is a process that takes place under the immediate surface of physical appearance, the next stage seemingly appearing out of nowhere all of a sudden. Okay, a common Creationist attack against Evolutionists is the “holes argument”. Take any two juxtaposed points on the evolutionary chart and there is a space between those two points. Creationists will always say “there is a gap there, you don’t know what happened”. In time a new fossil is found that fills that space giving an explanation. Then, the Creationists will say “you haven’t explained anything, now there are two holes on each side of the new fossil.” In other words, using metaphysics, you can never satisfy the “holes argument”. As dialectics understands it is not an instantaneous change but a process that takes place under the surface.
This new German philosophy finally built up into its modern form, the Hegelian system. As Engels said:
“In this system – and herein is its great merit – for the first time the 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 judgement seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself.”
This system also had its problems, its problem was in the immaterial. Hegel was an “Idealist”, to him the thoughts in his brain were not more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes. To him they were external ideas that existed before ideas did. He sees ideas as something external to the human mind. This mode of thinking is similar to that of religion.
It all lies on on big contradiction: The Hegelian system says that human history is a process of evolution, which means that there cannot be an absolute truth. But at the same time claims to be the very essence of absolute truth.
“A system of natural and historical knowledge, embracing everything, and final for all time, is a contradiction to the fundamental law of dialectic reasoning.”
This perception of fundamental contradiction by necessity led back to materialism. But it did not lead back to the 18th century metaphysical materialism. The old materialism saw human history as “a crude heap of irrationality and violence”. Modern materialism saw sees it as an evolution of humanity that leads towards an explanation of it.
This means modern materialism is dialectic, it takes in natural science (which has its own history in time). It takes into account celestial bodies, like organic life, under favourable conditions, are created and then destroyed. It understands these things, because materialism and the dialectic work in a synergistic manner.
This new conception of Nature (as a process not cycles) could only come about through information discovered by research. Social theory is no different in this regard.
The class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie became the main event in history in proportion to the development of modern industry and the political supremacy of the bourgeoisie.
With the dialectic we were able to see that all of history, except in the primitive stages, was a history of class struggles. The classes that go to war in any given time are the product of the modes of production and exchange.
When this happened, socialism went from being the idea of some genius, to being the necessary result of a battle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
Socialism was not longer idealistic, it’s goal was no longer to create a perfect system. It was materialistic, “to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict”.
The early idealistic socialism could criticize the prevalent mode of capitalist production and its consequences, but it could not understand them and thus could not defeat them or understand how they developed. What this dialectical analysis discovered was the great contradiction in capitalist society that explained not only exploitation, but its eventual downfall… surplus-value (in previous times, unpaid labour).
“These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries, Socialism became a science. The next thing was to work out all its details and relations.”
III. Historical Materialism
“The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes…”
From this point of view we can see that revolutions are caused by not created by ideas in people’s heads, but by necessary changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are not found in philosophy, but in the economics of any given time.
The bourgeois created the mode of capitalist production. This destroyed the feudal system of production because it was incompatible with a system of free competition. This allowed an explosion in the development in the production of machinery for production. But now machinery has developed to its limits within capitalism just as it had in feudalism.
This limitation is a conflict between mode of production and the productive forces. This is not a made up conflict, it exists independent of people’s opinion. Socialism is the necessary reordering of society to unlock more productive forces.
Before capitalist production society was a collection of small producers working for themselves. Private property was “instruments of labour of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker…”. This meant production was scattered among many small individual producers. This scattering of production had its limits, it could not develop further as it did in capitalism. This happened because capitalism concentrated production.
“In the fourth section of capital Marx explained in detail how since the 15th century this has been historically worked out through three phases of simple co-operation, manufacture, and modern industry. But the bourgeoisie, as shown there, could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men.”
Because now commodities were the product of social production, no one person could say they made it.
This is the contradiction of capitalism, wealth is generated by a collective of people but owned by an individual. This has given rise to all the social antagonisms of today. It has reduced the productive power of a single individual into an exchangeable part of capitalist production.
So much for capitalist claim of reaping the benefits of their hard work!
The need is to recognize the social nature of modern productive forces. To recognize that the mode of production that is capitalism has determined the social relations. The solution is to have society directly take control of production and have it fit the desired social relations, not the other way around.
Active social forces seem like that they impose themselves blindly and destructively only if we do not understand them. But once we understand them we can subject them to our own will to achieve objectives. This understanding goes against capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Which is why they fight like hell to make sure these ideas stay out of the mainstream media and educational institutions.
As capitalism develops it turns more and more people into proletarians. These proletarians become an exploited majority who turn into a force for revolution. The revolution in turn takes the means of production and makes them property of the state, eliminating of position as proletariat.
The state has always been the representative of the elite in society:
in ancient times, the State of slaveowning citizens;
in the Middle Ages, the feudal landlords;
in our own times, the bourgeoisie.
When there is no subjugated class or anarchy in production (meaning it is organized, not market driven), the state is no longer necessary.
“The stave is not ‘abolished’. It dies out. This gives the measure of the value of the agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific inefficiency, and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.”
The document was written to show how socialism was developed from a utopian idea of a society wanted, to a true understanding of HOW societies worked, thus enabling us to understand HOW a socialist society can be created.
The dialectic is a correct form of logic, but it has its limitations because it is not grounded in materialism. Historical materialism gave the world an understanding of why societies were they way they were. Marx combined historical materialism with the dialectic into “dialectical materialism” to create the communist philosophy.
Dialectical materialism allows us to understand the material conditions of all societies and how those conditions work with and against each other. This was the genius of Karl Marx.