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Red Reviews: “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”

By J. Sykes

Friedrich Engels.

Today we are launching a new series on Marxist-Leninist theory, focusing on important texts from the principal theorists of Marxism-Leninism: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. In these short reviews, we will look briefly at the historical context of the text, we will break down the main argument and points, and we will talk about how the text remains relevant and applicable to revolutionaries today. We will begin with Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, by Friedrich Engels.

The pamphlet Socialism, Utopian and Scientific was published in 1890, and is extracted from a larger work on Marxist philosophy by Engels, called Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science, from 1877. That book is a response to the work of Professor Karl Eugen Dühring. Dühring criticized Marxism from an idealist and utopian position, and Engel’s book takes the opportunity to answer Dühring and explain clearly and systematically the philosophical and scientific theories of Marxism.

Paul Lafargue, a leading socialist in France and son-in-law to Karl Marx, requested that the text of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific be published as a small pamphlet. The pamphlet was immediately very popular. Engels writes in the introduction to the 1892 English edition, “I am not aware that any other Socialist work, not even our Communist Manifesto of 1848, or Marx's Capital, has been so often translated.”

The book begins with an analysis of Utopian Socialism, particularly in France. But first, in his introduction to the English edition, Engels gives us an analysis of the historical development of religious thinking among the English bourgeoisie. Here, Engels writes, “The long fight of the bourgeoisie against feudalism culminated in three great, decisive battles.” These are the Protestant Reformation, the English Revolution, and the French Revolution. He also notes the enormous impact of the industrial revolution and the social revolutions of 1848. Engels traces the role of idealist and materialist thought through these struggles. He writes that “Thus, if materialism became the creed of the French Revolution, the God-fearing English bourgeois held all the faster to his religion.” He goes on to note, “The more materialism spread from France to neighboring countries, and was reinforced by similar doctrinal currents, notably by German philosophy, the more, in fact, materialism and free thought generally became, on the Continent, the necessary qualifications of a cultivated man, the more stubbornly the English middle-class stuck to its manifold religious creeds.”

Engels’ point here is to contextualize, for his readers among the English working class, the text that follows, which deals with the development of socialist thought in France.

Utopian socialism

Engels begins his analysis of the origins of contemporary socialism, writing,

“Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production. But, in its theoretical form, modern Socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the 18th century. Like every new theory, modern Socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in material economic facts.”

Engels writes that these philosophers were “extreme revolutionists” who believed that “everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence.” According to them, writes Engels,

“Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion, was flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.”

But Engels stresses “We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.” Engels emphasizes an important Marxist point here: that ideology and class are bound up together, that the dominant ideas in society are determined by the dominant class in society. Therefore, “this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice … this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law … bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and … the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic.” Engels sums this point up, by saying that these bourgeois social philosophers of the 18th century “could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.”

And yet, returning to the “three great, decisive battles of the Reformation, the English Revolution, and the French Revolution, Engels points out, “in every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the forerunner, more or less developed, of the modern proletariat. For example, at the time of the German Reformation and the Peasants’ War, the Anabaptists and Thomas Münzer; in the great English Revolution, the Levellers; in the great French Revolution, Babeuf.“ In this way Engels acknowledges that there are two ideologies in conflict in developing capitalist society: the dominant ideology of the bourgeoisie, liberalism, and the revolutionary ideology of the proletariat, socialism. This latter current of thought gives rise to the “three great Utopians,” Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen.

Engels notes that these founders of utopian socialism were also limited by the conditions in which they found themselves. “The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain.” Engels explains this further, saying

“Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.”

These utopians were still working within the idealist framework they had inherited from the bourgeois philosophers who were their immediate predecessors. “To all these, Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power,” writes Engels. “And as an absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.”


However well meaning they may have been, the utopian founders of modern socialism were unable to place socialism on a scientific basis. On the one hand, as Engels put it, “To the crude conditions of capitalistic production and the crude class conditions correspond crude theories.” Capitalism in its infancy was based in the workshop handicraft industry, which began in the 16th century and would last through the middle of the 18th century. The period of the development of large-scale mechanized industry had only just begun when the utopians were writing. On the other hand, the utopians lacked the methodology to analyze capitalist development. Engels notes that “the French of the 18th century were almost wholly dominated” by metaphysics.

What does this mean? What is metaphysics? Engels puts it like this.

“To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. … 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 a rigid antithesis, one to the other.”

Engels contrasts this mode of thinking with dialectics, which he says, “comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.”

In other words, metaphysics sees things as absolute, eternal, fixed, and isolated, while dialectics sees things as always in motion, developing in relation to one-another, as the result of conflict and struggle. This dialectical methodology finds its philosophical expression in the system of the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. Engels explains, “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.”

This was a huge step forward, but Hegel still wasn’t able to separate his dialectical method from his fundamentally idealist worldview. He still understood historical development as being driven by ideas, and ultimately, by God. It was Marx, by understanding that historical change and social transformation are driven by material processes, namely by class struggle, who put dialectics on a materialist basis. As Engels put it, “Hegel has freed history from metaphysics — he made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining man's ‘knowing’ by his ‘being’, instead of, as heretofore, his ‘being’ by his ‘knowing’.”

Until this point, the utopians sought to theorize socialist society in an idealist and metaphysical way. They didn’t understand the laws of motion of capitalist society, nor did they understand the historic mission of the proletariat to bring class society, exploitation and oppression, to an end. As a result, none of their theories or experiments could bear fruit.

Marx, on the other hand, was able to demonstrate, as Engels notes,

“…the appropriation of unpaid labor is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker that occurs under it; that even if the capitalist buys the labor power of his laborer at its full value as a commodity on the market, he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for; and that in the ultimate analysis, this surplus-value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. The genesis of capitalist production and the production of capital were both explained.”

“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.”

Historical materialism

The section “Historical Materialism” brings us to the culmination of Engels’s pamphlet. Here he explains the scientific conclusions drawn by applying dialectical materialism to the study of historical development. Engels gives the following general sketch of what historical materialism means:

“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 or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”

Engels explains the core terms used by historical materialism to understand this process: namely, the mode of production, and within that, the forces and relations of production. The mode of production is the way that society organizes the production and distribution of human wants and needs. The forces of production are the tools, factories, farms, and techniques of labor used in that production. And the relations of production are the concrete relationships of ownership and power that govern who does the work and reaps the profits of that work, the class relations of society.

Engels then gives us a sweeping overview of historical materialism. He explains how the division of labor under capitalism gives to the productive forces a social character, carried out by the working class as a whole, while ownership of the means of production and the accumulation of wealth remains private, hoarded by the capitalists. He explains how this fundamental contradiction inherent in capitalism drives the entire system towards crisis. And he explains that the proletariat has an historic mission to abolish “all class distinction and class antagonisms.” He explains that the state arises from class antagonism, and that by abolishing class antagonism, the state “dies out of itself,” or, as Lenin would later put it, “withers away.”

Engels writes, “Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization,” and “The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.” Truly, this is what scientific socialism, that is, Marxism-Leninism, gives to us: an understanding of the laws that govern social development, so that we can use those laws to abolish exploitation and oppression once and for all. Thus, Engels concludes that “To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat.”

Socialism, Utopian and Scientific today

Anyone interested in social change should read this important pamphlet by Engels. Today, we see all around us various “socialists” who fail to understand the need for dialectical and historical materialism, and so are unable to make their ideas bear fruit. Like the utopians then, today we have various currents of progressive liberals, anarchists, and social democrats, all with their own condemnations of capitalism’s ills, and their own pie-in-the-sky solutions. Like the utopians, they don’t understand the laws of motion that govern social transformation, and they don’t understand that the working class, the proletariat, has a historic mission that only it can achieve. But unlike the utopians, today we have Marxism. We have the theory of dialectical and historical materialism, so we can approach the problems of revolution in a scientific way.

Our job before us today is a big one. We need to bring proletarian ideology home to the workers’ movement, to fuse Marxism with the working-class movement so that workers can get a clear picture of the methods of their exploitation, and the means by which to overcome it. And we need to build a revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist party that can carry out this historic mission to overthrow all existing social relations and build a new, socialist society. Studying this pamphlet by Engels is important to give us the theoretical weapons we need to carry out these tasks.

J. Sykes is the author of the book “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting

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