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Is Socialism Utopian or Scientific?

Week 1

Is Socialism Utopian or Scientific?

Week 1

Friedrich Engels, “Socialism Utopian and Scientific

Executive Summary

Engels is best known as Karl Marx’s co-author of The Communist Manifesto. Engels was often a clearer writer, and in this monograph published 27 years after The Communist Manifesto he summarizes socialism’s early development and the unique tenets of the Marx-Engels version.

1.  Engels credits some earlier socialists, such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen for identifying some socialist principles and for their anti-capitalist moral stances. Yet their socialisms are mostly ideal and idiosyncratic thought constructions without realistic implementation plans and so “utopian.”

2.  In part this is because modern utopian socialists had been operating in an Enlightenment world of reason, rights, justice, and equality and could not think outside of it. Yet now, Engels argues, we can see that the Enlightenment was merely “the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie” and so an expression of its limited class interests.

3.  “To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.” That real basis, Engels argues, has been shown by Marx to be materialistic, economic, dialectical, and deterministic.

4.  Humans are material beings and they first need to eat, hence “the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis.” Yet economics proceeds by laws of competition between “warring classes of society.” The classes exploit each other and/or experience alienation before the conflict is resolved dialectically and history moves on to its next stage—from tribal to feudal to capitalist to statism and, ultimately, to socialism.

5.  In the capitalist stage, the bourgeois owners of capital organize the workers into larger economic units—in contrast to the more scattered, individualized workshops of the feudal era—and appropriate the surplus value for themselves. But also the new machines make workers’ labor superfluous. “Thus it comes about, to quote Marx, that machinery becomes the most powerful weapon in the war of capital against the working-class.”

6.  The combination of large-scale organization and technology also, by “a compulsory law,” makes capitalists superfluous: “The merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary,” and their economic functions will be taken over by the State’s administration.

7.  That happens when the now-organized “proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.” Yet this seizure of political power is also dialectically the means of its own dissolution, for, “in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State.”

8.  As the administration of economic production is now fully organized and automated, freeing humans from the “mere animal conditions of existence,” and thus freed “man himself, more and more consciously, [can] make his own history.”

Read Engels’s full "Socialism Utopian and Scientific" here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2021.

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