England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Engels’ ‘Socialism Utopian and Scientific’ – still brilliantly relevant today

Engels’ book Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was written to popularise the economic and political ideas of Karl Marx and also to clearly show the difference between Marxism (‘scientific socialism’) and reformism. It was one of the most read and translated works of Marx and Engels (English was the 10th language it was translated into) and it remains one of their most influential writings.

French Revolution and its ideologists

In Part I Engels begins by looking at the origin of Marxism, not in the head of Karl Marx, but in the assimilation and deepening of the best ideas of the French revolution, whilst recognising that despite the genius of those ideas, they could not “go beyond the limits imposed on them by their epoch”.

The promises made by the French philosophers such as Rousseau of a rational society under capitalism were soon revealed to be illusory – democracy was replaced by the dictatorship of Napoleon. Instead of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, and the ‘freedom of property’ for most meant ‘freedom from property’ as the big capitalists drove small businesses into bankruptcy.

But in each movement to overthrow feudalism and develop capitalism there was always an extreme left – the English Levellers, the German Anabaptists or the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ of Gracchus Babeuf in the French Revolution – who could see far ahead to a possible socialist future. But because of the lack of development of industry and the working class the practical achievement of socialism was impossible at that time, and so remained a dream of perfection, a ‘Utopia’. As Engels says: ’the Utopians attempted to … discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society by propaganda…The more they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure fantasies’.

The great Utopians of the 19th Century

These early extreme left democrats were followed by the great Utopians of the 19th Century, Henri de Saint Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Engels analyses the ideas and programme of each of them and gives them credit for their far-seeing ideas and dedication to the cause of socialism. 

In Britain the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen carried the ideas of the Utopians into action by setting up a model community from 1800 to 1829 around his mills in New Lanark in Scotland where he gave his workers schools for their children, a shorter working day and full pay through periods of slack trade. Later Owen set up communist communities in America to try to export and extend the model of New Lanark, but they failed, taking his fortune with them. The lesson? You cannot build islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism. 


In Part II Engels gives one of the finest expositions of the philosophy of Marxism, dialectics, contrasting the way it integrates dynamic development and human activity with the rigid categories of the French thinkers of the 18th century, or the reductionist and mechanical outlook of the English empiricists like Bacon and Locke, described by them as ‘common sense’. In Engels’ words, in the real world, ‘We see an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away’.

This would of course include each successive state of society, including capitalism, contrary to the received wisdom nowadays that capitalism has always existed and always will. Socialism as a further development of human society is for Engels not the creation of one person’s thought, but the ‘necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the bourgeoisie and working class’. The task was no longer to think up a perfect system of society and to propagandise for it, but to study the historical origins of these classes and their struggle, and to work out the ending of this conflict. 

Systems of production

In Part III Engels states: ’The means of the socialist transformation are not to be deduced from fundamental principles but are to be discovered in the stubborn facts of the existing system of production’. The capitalist system moves in a cycle of ultimately unsolvable contradictions, giving rise to greater and greater crises. These contradictions, according to Engels, are firstly between mass production and the private ownership of the economy and its profits; and secondly between planned production within each company, and the anarchy of the market. These contradictions give rise to periodic capitalist crises, where the products of industry cannot be sold. Wealth grows at one pole of society, poverty at the other. The previous Utopian versions of socialism “Criticised the capitalist system, and its consequences, but could not explain them, and therefore overcome them. It could only reject them as bad”.

The Greens: Modern Utopians

That is the difference. Perhaps the foremost Utopians of modern politics are the Greens, who will criticise the evils of ‘the system’ but without a theory, an understanding, or an explanation.  They may often not even call for a socialist system, just ‘another world’. We would say what other world? What does it look like, how will it be achieved? And the capitalist press and their tame commentariat will say ‘How will it be paid for?’

The Greens, and many on the Labour Left, argue for a Green New Deal.  Who doesn’t want a Green New Deal and a just transition for workers from the fossil-fuel sector to carbon-neutral ones? But such a dramatic switch cannot be achieved by tax reforms, incentives, even laws, it simply cannot be achieved while the economic system is in private hands.  That’s why we in Socialist Alternative, as followers of Marx and Engels, argue that the whole economy must be in public hands so that it can be planned in the interests of everyone.  You have to be Red to be Green.

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is an invaluable guide to the origins of socialism and Marxism, a clear exposition of Marxist philosophy, and an outline of Marx’s theories of capitalist crisis. It is all of those things, but it is also a warning and corrective to the well-meaning Utopians in the modern movement. The original Utopians could be no other, given the lack of development of industry and the working class. But in the modern world there is no excuse for not studying the capitalist system and the conflict of its irreconcilably opposed classes.


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