Frederick Engels on the Theoretical Development of Modern Socialism

engels2

Engels discusses the theories of modern socialism in chapter two of part three of his book Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science. We are informed that socialism is a politico-economic theory based on the materialist conception of history. Unlike idealist conceptions that history is based on the great ideas and actions of famous individuals, or guided by spiritual forces, or the expression of a grand plan set up by some deity or other (there are several choices as to which deity came up with the plan).  Materialists believe that the existence of the various institutions and social structures that have developed over time, and by which various groups of humans arrange their social institutions, belief patterns, and social relations are to be understood, in the last analysis, by a study of how they interact to make their daily bread (production) and how they come to distribute what they made to each other (distribution). Thus, the causes of the different phases of human development , Engels says, "are to be sought, not in the philosophy but in the economics of each particular epoch."

Today, Engels says (he means the 1870s in Europe but his comments are still as true now as then) there is a growing sense that something is basically wrong and unfair in how our national and international economic system operates. It can't employ all who wish to work, millions of people are living in poverty, famines and droughts brought about by human activity engulf large sections of the globe, and hunger stalks the streets of many of our largest cities, families are homeless and uprooted, and our schools and colleges fail to properly educate the youth to understand the world they live in. Yet a very small group of wealthy people grow richer and richer while the vast majority of humanity suffers and wastes away.

This shows, according to Engels, that new ways of production and distribution have evolved and that the social order we live in has not kept up with these developments. In fact, our social order has become dysfunctional and is holding back all the possible potential improvements in human welfare that the new productive and distributive powers could provide. It is the task of socialists to discover and point out the current impediments which prevent the productive system from reaching its full potential and to discover the means of benefiting all humanity rather than just a small portion. And, he says: "These means are not to be invented, spun out of the head, but discovered with the aid of the head in the existing material facts of production."

Our present society is the creation of a class of people consisting of merchants, shopkeepers,and owners of small manufacturing concerns, all those who made their living either by buying, selling, and trading commodities, small farmers who trucked their product to market and those who ministered to them (doctors, lawyers, teachers and preachers). Underneath this class was a class of laborers who made the commodities, or helped in their storage and distribution, upon which the former relied for their income. This latter class became the working class of today and the former the class of people living off of the surplus value created by the working class. Marx and others referred to them as the bourgeoisie or capitalists.

This mode of production, the creation of commodities for a market, has come to be called capitalism. The first capitalists found themselves subservient to a powerful ruling class of nobles consisting of feudal lords and (mostly) hereditary monarchs who lived by means of the agricultural exploitation of serfs and taxation of the income of the developing bourgeoisie. This ruling class stifled the productive capacity of the of the bourgeoisie and prevented it from reaching its true potential. In other words, the bounds within which the feudal system restricted the capitalists were incompatible with that class's growing mode of production and so, Engels says, the "bourgeoisie broke up the feudal system and built upon its ruins the capitalist order of society."

Once the feudal bonds were broken (the French Revolution was one of the most dramatic instances), the capitalist mode of production flourished and developed the productive forces of society to unprecedented heights, only in its turn to find that its own associated method of distribution contradicted its mode of production. The social product is a collective creation of working people in all the branches of production but it is appropriated by a small number of capitalists who own and control the means by which this social product is created. The social product is then distributed in a way that increases the social wealth of the capital class at the expense of the well being of the working people, ultimately leading to their impoverishment. The only way the working people can free themselves from the exploitation of the capitalist class is by uniting together and abolishing it.
This conflict is waged daily in every work place, factory, field, and mine where the capitalist mode of production holds sway. This very active and real class warfare is a feature, 24/7, of daily life in almost every country on the face of the earth, and just like high blood pressure (the silent killer), it is going on and even intensifying whether the people involved are aware of it or not.

Engels says, "Modern socialism is nothing but the reflex in thought of this conflict, in fact; its ideal reflection in the minds, first, of the class directly suffering under it, the working class." The fact that in many countries many, and even most, working people are lacking this "reflex in thought" is testament to the power of the capitalist class, through its mass media and control of the education system, means of entertainment, and professional sports, to fill the heads of working people with illusions and a false sense of reality.

How did this class warfare between workers and capitalists begin? It is not to be found in the Middle Ages, because the peasant farmers and handicraft men, or their families, made their own necessities, by and large, and the products of their labor belonged to them. They could use them themselves or take them to market as commodities or pay their taxes and feudal dues in kind or exchange them with one another.

With the progress of invention it was possible for a person to set up shop with, say, many looms, and put many hands to work side by side with the peasant with his own loom in his hut making products for himself. Now the product of the man with many looms belonged to him and loom workers were given wages.

Engels says the old division of labor of the peasant village, with products being exchanged in kind, began to break up as this primitive factory system began to evolve. "In the midst of the old division of labor, grown up spontaneously and upon no definite plan, which had governed the whole of society, now arose division of labor upon a definite plan, as organized in the factory; side by side with individual production appeared social production." Planning locally, and eventually central planning, was a major feature of the success of capitalism. Whatever the problems 20th century socialism were, they did not result from the use of central planning per se.

As the capitalist system evolved it eventually replaced individual production with social production but kept in place individual appropriation of the products that were produced-- thus creating a new class of exploited human beings that became known as the proletariat who soon began to stand outcast and starving amid the wonders they had made, which wonders were now the property of the bourgeoisie.

As production for a market became more and more widespread it was soon discovered, Engels points out, that: "Anarchy reigns in socialized production." This is because no one can really tell what the fate of the the commodities they are making will be: will there be a demand for them, will they be sold at a profit or loss?  Even with the planning involved in setting up the factory system, there always remains this risk factor under capitalism.
Capitalism thus finds itself subject to the laws of EXCHANGE ("the only persistent form of social interrelations") which manifest themselves in competition. The anarchy becomes exacerbated since capitalism destroys competing modes of production and will not co-exist with them; thus handicrafts were replaced by the system of manufacture and manufacture by steam-powered machinery.

This all happened under the pressure of the age of discovery, starting roughly with the voyages of Columbus, and the planting of colonies which vastly increased the number of markets and sealed the fate of the handicraft system, which could not keep up with demand. It also led to the outbreak of wars between nations fighting for market share-- a form of anarchistic behavior that still marks the world capitalist system.

It is at this point that Engels turns to Darwinian images to describe the relations of capitalists to one another. Both Marx and Engels were very impressed with The Origin of Species, but neither were so-called "social Darwinists." Nevertheless, today's globalization is simply an extension of the world market of the nineteenth century that Engels described as a universal struggle of existence between different capitalist elites, and whole nations and those who fail are "remorselessly cast aside"-- unless, of course they get government stimulus money and bailouts.

"It is," Engels says, "the Darwinian struggle of the individual for existence transferred from nature to society with intensified violence." Capitalism reduces humanity back to its natural animal form of existence. This is the result of the intensification of the contradiction between socialized mode of production and the private capitalist appropriation of the social product.
One of the results of the unfettered competition between capitalists is that they lose control of their own economic system, as we see going on at present, and, as it crashes, the anarchy of production (which also reigns in the financial sector) forces "the great majority" of the people into becoming "proletarians." The current Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWSM) reflects the fact that the "middle class" (actually a better paid stratum of the working class mixed with small business people and professionals) is being forced into lower paid jobs, unemployment, bankruptcy, and debt, and sees no way out for itself in this economy. They are becoming part of the surplus population (from the point of view of the capitalists) and don't like it. They have yet to fully realize that this is the natural outcome of capitalism and that their only hope for a better life is to support socialist economic measures.

The OWSM is a natural response to what is the latest breakdown in the capitalist system. Engels dates the first general breakdown to the Crisis of 1825-- caused by over-speculation by the banks (especially the Bank of England) in unsound investments in Latin America (particularly in Peru). Just as in our current crisis, investors were given misinformation about the soundness of their investments and when the market collapsed were left holding bag. The banks use the term "asymmetric information" to note that what they know about the investment and what you know is different. The term fraud would be more to the point. In 1825 France bailed out England.  In our current crisis the US taxpayers bailed out the banks.

These panics used to occur about every ten years, but there was some stabilization after World War II and we had about 60 years of minor panics and recessions before the current worldwide, ongoing economic crash of the capitalist system, with no end in sight. However, for Engels, what looks like a financial crisis is really a crisis in production. Socialized production had made too many goodies for the markets, so factories laid off working people, who then could not pay their bills-- especially their fraudulent mortgages. Since the financial sector had cooked up so many mortgages based on "asymmetric information," the whole economy began to fall apart.
So many factories remain closed or under-utilized that unemployment balloons, and the great productive forces available to our economy are dormant until the capitalists can figure how to get them going again in such a way that they, not the American people, can once again appropriate the wealth that will be created by the workers. The added twist of our day is that capitalists, their industries having become unproductive during the downturn, add to their profits by getting out of paying taxes, by adding fees and surcharges to service products, and by hiking interest rates to private borrowers (credit cards for example), even while commercial interest rates are held low by government intervention via the Federal Reserve.

As the corporate world flounders, as the auto industry recently did, it relies on "its official representative"-- namely the state-- to come to its aid. It should be obvious to all that the state which Lincoln called "of the people, for the people, by the people" is now "of, for, and by the corporations"-- it is their referee.

Engels says that the state will eventually be forced to take over the commanding heights of the economy, simply because the capitalists can no longer control them due to the growing contradiction between the socialized productive forces (masses of workers united with or without unions in the creation of the social product in factories and industries and subject to increasing unemployment and poverty) and the private appropriation of the social product by the 1 to 10% of the ruling class and its top functionaries. The tipping point has not yet been reached, but it is coming-- if not in this crisis, then it will present itself in the next.

Such state takeover under capitalism is not yet socialism, Engels tells us, even though the commanding heights will have been converted into state property. However, the takeover reveals that all the functions of running the economy can be taken over by state "salaried employees." Since the "modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine," as it is forced to nationalize failing industries "it actually becomes the national capitalist." The state directly exploits the working people, having done away with individual, and incompetent, private capitalists (done in by their own creation).

This is not a stable situation and in a democracy it cannot last. The contradiction between the state and the people brings to a head the capitalist relation between the people and their government and this must "topple over." State capitalism is not, therefore, the answer to the class conflict, "but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements" leading to that answer.

Once the people understand the source of their problems is the private appropriation of the social product, then the 99% can really set an agenda to put the 1% in their place. Here is what Engels thinks should happen. The people should set about "the harmonizing of the modes of production, appropriation, and exchange." Hopefully, they can do this through political action and the regulation of the three modes. Engels says "it depends only upon ourselves to subject them to our own will," and if we don't do so, these forces will continue to work against us and master us. State capitalism will be transformed in the direction of socialism.

The greatest challenge is to become conscious of the need for what is to be done, especially when that need is the take over of the economy by the people, because "this understanding goes against the grain of the capitalist mode of production and its defenders"--i.e., the capitalists, the major political parties, the mass media, the mainstream churches, and the public and private education systems, as well as the leadership of most unions and mass organizations as presently constituted.

Nevertheless, according to Engels, as the crisis deepens this consciousness will begin to develop in all of the above institutions except for the capitalist class itself and those completely dependent upon it. The working people and its allies and friends, the 99%, will have to take political power out of the hands of the corporations and their flunkies, if they have not already been nationalized, and turn the current privately held means of production into state property.

A by-product of this action, the abolition of private property, is that the 1% will no longer have the means to dominate the 99%-- all people will be equally working for their own and the common good. This is what Engels means when speaking of the ending of classes and class exploitation.

An even more startling consequence, in both his own time and ours, is Engels' (and Marx's) belief that the state will disappear. Even the most jaded Libertarian or demented tea-bagger could never hope to get government reduced to zero. But Engels points out that throughout history the role of the state has been to control the 99% in the interests of the 1%-- be they slave owners, feudal lords, or capitalists. This role will no longer exist in a society where everything (economically speaking) is owned and managed by the people collectively at the points of production and distribution. There will still be planning commissions and civic associations, but the state, as we know it, will be superfluous.

This does not mean that the state will be formally abolished by some sort of declaration or proclamation. It will just slowly wither away over time as its functions become moribund. At least this is the ideal that Engels has in mind for it. Perhaps, like "liberty and justice for all," it will remain an ideal that every generation comes closer to but never 100% attains, and then again maybe Engels will be right.


We must be mindful that all of this speculation about the coming to power of the working people, the disappearance of the 1%, the transition to socialism, etc., is dependent on the development of the productive forces of society to such a high degree of perfection that they can eliminate scarcity, and there will be the possibility of an abundance of food and other necessities and luxuries for all, and that the only reason for poverty and suffering is the control of society by the 1% in its own selfish interests.

In the language of philosophy, this means that Sartre's proposition in the Critique of Dialectical Reason : "Scarcity is a fundamental relation of our History and a contingent determination of our univocal relation to materiality," leading to his assertion that "there is not enough for everybody," does not hold. It has been overcome and negated, for our world. Indeed, Engels thought it did not hold even in the nineteenth century. We have the productive capacity, but we cannot use it due to the capitalist framework within which it exists. It is like the sick person-- the medicine exists to cure him but he doesn't have the money to buy it, so he dies.

If this is ever done, and it is a big if, the world humanity will find itself in after the passing of the capitalist mode of production will be very different from the world of today. Commodity production will cease, as there will be no market and no anarchy of production. Objects with use values will be made according to a central plan and they will be made to satisfy human needs, not to be sold for profit. There will be no more struggle for existence as all humans will be provided for and, Engels says, for the first time humanity will live as humans should and not be subject to an animal existence. For the first time humanity will control the laws of its own social existence and economy and not be subjected to them. The prehistory of humanity will be over and the true history of humanity will begin. It will be the beginning, not the end, of history. It will be the leap of humanity "from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom."

As the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I hope we have made that step on September 17, 2011 a few blocks from Wall Street in Liberty Square. But even if we haven't and Engels was at heart an utopian and his vision of the future a dream, still a dream, if that is all it is, can, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, inspire people to fight for a better world.

 

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.

Comments

  • what the hell does all thie info mean

    Posted by tia, 06/13/2013 7:32pm (7 years ago)

  • To see only a negative, discouraged, comment on our Thomas Riggins's solid article, is somewhat of a disappointment. Especially so considering the revolutionary times of austerity promoted by the ruling class and resisted by the working class.
    Now, in Britain we see what Engels and Marx consistently saw as the basis for building socialist society: the revolutionary activity of the politicized proletariat.
    Engels and Marx, ferociously maintained that the theoretical foundation of scientific socialism was the material problems, of the working class(basically made and created by the ruling class, through its socialization of labor and privatization of the product of that socialized labor) and the working out of those problems by the working class, for the working class, and of the working class.
    Only the workers are in a natural position to solve and comprehend these challenges or problems and offer a successful solution to capitalism's and imperialism's chronic problems of overproduction, underemployment and unemployment, the crises of depression and recession, war, violence and as our revered Henry Winston called it, omnicide and genocide of capitalism against humanity and nature.
    As Engels was wont to write: " Nothing is more profound than human understanding."
    This human understanding, this "theoretical development", flows from working class hands and brains.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/03/2011 10:03pm (9 years ago)

  • When you look at a country where there is no health care, not even when you are old; Medicare only covers so much and medication is overpriced and you must pay for it, you see a country that is somewhat like a a 3rd world country. It is embarassing. Still the American people are so patriotic it is hard to understand. What is there to be proud of? The beauty of the land has been raped by strip malls and cookie cutter neighborhoods... it is pathetic. Good luck trying to explain to these people that the only thing they have got to loose are they're chains!

    Posted by AugustSpies, 11/07/2011 2:52pm (9 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments