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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - The Difference Between Utopian and Scientific Socialism

Utopian Socialism

The first serious critique of capitalism came from a group of people whom Frederick Engels referred to as the Utopian Socialists.

The Utopian Socialists wanted to escape the problems created by capitalism by founding communities, model towns and elaborate accounting systems based on natural rights and justice.

The utopian socialists were mainly associated with Robert Owen, Henry Saint Simon and Charles Fourier. They were referred to as “utopians” because they appealed to the moral superiority and desirability of Socialism rather than demonstrating scientifically that socialism was a historical stage in social evolution based on class struggle over the means of production.

Socialism, of course, could not come about by itself. Socialism was not the outcome of fatalism or determinism. Socialism depended on the conscious and political action of the working class. Socialism was subject to a working class understanding and for workers being prepared to establish common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Engels wrote off the Utopian Socialists with the following observation:

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. 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.

He continued:

With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school. And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive of one another….

And he concluded:

Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific www.Marxists.org).

Instead of utopian plans the working class were singled out by Marx and Engels as the political agents of social change.

The other group of utopian speculators who came into prominence in the 1830’s were the Ricardian Socialists. They had almost grasped the process of exploitation under capitalism but could not break free from the constraints and contradictions of Ricardo’s political economy and the problems associated with his theory of value.

The first group of Ricardian Socialists included Piercy Ravenstone and Thomas Hodgskin. They were influenced by the anarchist William Godwin. They looked to a utopia made up of small-scale peasants and craftsmen.

The second group was made up of William Thompson, John Bray and John Gray. They tried to unite the ideas of David Ricardo with Robert Owen and looked to the founding of socialist communities within capitalism.

Both groups based their denunciation of capitalism on a theory of natural rights seeing capitalism an unjust and unnatural. Their watchword was “the worker’s right to the full product of labour”. The phrase is restrictive. Those unable to work, the ill, children and the elderly will still need access to what society produces.

Some of the Ricardian Socialists tried to construct a national bank where a worker could exchange a commodity he had made for a certificate for a determined number of labour units. The worker could then buy an array of commodities in the general store for the amount of labour units of his certificate. These exchange markets and banks quickly went bankrupt.

Marx meant to give a detailed overview of the Ricardian Socialists. This was to be in relation to Ricardo’s Theory of Value and the inability of Ricardo and other economists to get outside what Marx referred to as their “bourgeois skin”.

At his death Marx’s overview of the Ricardian Socialists was merely a detailed series of notes many of which just consisted of quotations or paraphrased jottings which would have been developed in a more systematic manner had he lived.

The overview can be found in chapter 21 in the second volume of THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE. The section is called Opposition to the Economists based on the Ricardian Theory and runs to over 90 pages.

After Marx’s death there have been very few studies which have looked at the writings on the Ricardian Socialists and their influence on Marx. The first was by Anton Menger in a book THE RIGHT TO THE WHOLE PRODUCE OF LABOUR published in 1899 with a negative introduction by the economist H. S. Foxwell.

A more sympathetic account can be found in A HISTORY OF ECONOMIC THOUGHT, (1979) by I. I. Rubin which was published in the 1920’s. Rubin made a number of valid criticisms against the Utopian Socialists (ch 38 pp 346-350):

* They had no understanding that in a commodity economy a product’s labour cannot be expressed in anything but money. It was impossible to abolish money while keeping all the other categories of economics

* They could not understand that capitalism was historically necessary

* They were more interested in conceiving plans for the future rather than looking at capitalism as it is now

* They looked to the labour theory of value as a means to transcend capitalism rather than using it to explain a capitalist economy.

But Rubin also added some positive contributions the Ricardian socialists made to Socialist theory:

Their most positive contribution was that they began to understand the idea of a surplus value where landlords and capitalists receive profit from the labour of workers.

And Rubin made this comment:

Tremendous credit is owed to the author of one socialist pamphlet, published in 1821, for having bought all forms of unearned income together under one category, though it must be admitted that he still called it interest, and not surplus value (p. 349).

Rubin’s is referring to the author of the anonymous pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties published in London in 1821. The author appears to have been Charles Dentworth Dilke. Dilke was publisher of the magazine, THE ATHENAEUM and a supporter of the anarchist and utopian writer, William Godwin.

The Source and Remedy was, according to Frederick Engels, "saved from falling into oblivion," by Karl Marx.

Engels saw the pamphlet as:

but the farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat.” (CAPITAL VOLUME II Preface Marxist.org)

Here is what Marx had to say of the tract:

He (the author) distinguishes the general form of surplus labour or surplus-value from their particular forms, something which neither Ricardo nor Adam Smith [does], at least not consciously or consistently (HEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE Volume III, p.254 ch. XXI Opposition to the Economists Progress Publishers 1975)

Some commentators (Sandwichman, Econospeak.blogspot.com) have not been able to discern any revolutionary radicalism in the anonymous text. However, Marx was largely interested in the first six pages of the pamphlet as part of an overview of the opposition to economists like Smith and Ricardo.

Marx stated that:

According to our plan we are here concerned only with that opposition, which takes at its starting point the premises of the economists” (p.238).

Engels likewise in the Preface to CAPITAL II was responding to the School associated with the German economists, Johann Rodbertus rather than making a detailed analysis of the Ricardian Socialists.

In any case these comments on the Ricardian Socialists in THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE were only notes never edited by Marx for publication. There are only 87 pages devoted to the Ricardian socialists. There are some interesting comments in respect to Piercy Ravenstone’s book “THOUGHTS ON THE FUNDING SYSTEM AND IT'S EFFECTS”. Marx said of Ravenstone’s book that it was: “A most remarkable work”.

Of John Bray there are only a few fragments, usually quotations from Bray himself while the only sustained critique of the Ricardian Socialists by Marx in THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE is against Thomas Hodgkin’s LABOUR DEFENDED AGAINST THE CLAIMS OF CAPITAL and POPULAR POLITICAL ECONOMY.

In science all new theories have their precursors. Newton and Leibnitz published rigorous accounts of the Calculus simultaneously from each other but both were influenced by previous mathematical ideas. Darwin too was influenced by other writers who preceded him. Marx was no different. Nevertheless, like Newton, Leibnitz and Darwin’s contribution to their own respective field of study, Marx’s own theory of surplus value has contours which define ideas unique to Marx.

Engels and Scientific Socialism.

In the first section of ANTI-DUHRING, Engels gave a definition of modern socialism. He said that it was recognition of the class struggle between capitalists and workers and the anarchy of capitalist production (p 25 Moscow 1878).

Engels went on to add that Socialism is also, theoretically, tied to and develops from the 18th century Enlightenment and French utopian philosophers like Morelly and Mabley.

According to Morelly’s The Code of Nature, "...where no property exists, none of its pernicious consequences could exist....”; (Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, ed., SOCIALIST THOUGHT: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, pp. 18-31). He believed that almost all social and moral ills were a consequence of private property.

Mabley proposed the abolition of private property so that people's antisocial or egotistical instincts would not overcome their inclinations to sympathy and altruism.

For Marx and Engels the use of reason was a central characteristic of the Enlightenment which reached its climax with German Idealism and the philosophy of Hegel.

The central thesis of the Enlightenment was that men and women could use reason to come to a rational understanding of their situation.

Marx formulated this proposition in terms of class and class struggle applying it to the development of the working class as a revolutionary force in history.

The working class had the potential to act as a class in their own interest to create a social system which would meet their needs and aspirations.

Socialists would suggest that this is one of the most powerful and unique political propositions Marx and Engels formulated.

There are very few far reaching political ideas in human history. But the working class acting in their own interests to consciously and politically establish Socialism is one of them.

The working class did not need political leaders. They had the potential to establish socialism by themselves. The working class through its own efforts could transcend the wages system and establish and shape a new social system based on free, cooperative and social labour.

And it was a political idea that barely survived Marx and Engel’s death.

Even before Lenin, Social Democrats had seen the working class merely as a battering ram held by political leaders to break through the doors leading to political power in order to wrest it from the capitalist class. Social Reforms rather than revolution were offered to the working class. For theorists like Kautsky, socialist ideas could only be injected into working class consciousness “from without”.

Lenin and his followers only tied this anti-Marxian thinking together by stating that workers had to be led to socialism through the actions of a professional revolutionary elite.

It was only the Socialist Party of Great Britain who kept alive the political concept of the working class establishing Socialism through its own effort and organisation without the need for leaders.

Marx’s Two Discoveries

Engels went on to say that modern scientific socialism was based on two discoveries by Marx.

These two discoveries were set out in an article Engels published in the VOLKKALANDER, an almanac that appeared in Brunswick in 1878 and in ANTI-DUHRING published in the same year (later to be condensed into pamphlet form as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).

What does Engels mean by “Scientific” in the expression “Scientific Socialism”?

Engels uses the German word Wissenschaft, for Scientific. It does not mean “practical” which translates into German as Praktische.

Rather than say anything detailed about Socialism Engels stresses that it comes out of a real historical process and cannot be anticipated in advance.

After all; the object of CAPITAL, which Marx set out in the preface, was to discover the laws of motion of capital; that is the movement of capital in all its contradictions and conflicts as class struggle.

Scientific Socialism relates theory to facts and observation and does not produce fanciful recipes for a future socialist society, socialist models or prescriptive and undemocratic utopian speculation.

In fact Socialists have to ask searching questions based on the facts as they present themselves to us:

* Are the productive forces including social labour power impeded by the social relations of production?

* Is there a world working class? Why is Socialism a necessity?

* Where is the working class currently located in capitalism’s history as a social system?

* What is the current position of the class struggle? Where does the advantage lie?

* What forces, contradictions and trends in capitalism exist to create more Socialists and increase the size of a Socialist Party?

These are important practical questions to ask and which arise out of a scientific enquiry into capitalism.

Marx never used the expression “scientific socialism” but he had read and approved the draft of Engels’s ANTI-DUHRING and even contributed sections to it.

Let us now turn to the two discoveries made by Marx.

Discovery 1: The materialist conception of history and the class struggle.

Before Marx, the view of history was based on the belief that the ultimate cause of social change was the change in ideas notably political ideas.

The Question to be asked was this: “what drove these political ideas to change”?

Marx drew on the work of French and English historians who had noticed that the driving force in European history was not ideas but a class struggle between the developing capitalist class and the Feudal aristocracy.

Marx showed that all written history – with the exception of its primitive stages-was in fact a history of class struggles. And the class struggle was in fact a political struggle; the “motor force of history”.

The real issue was not ideas causing ideas but the ideas which came out of one class maintaining its control and privilege –Divine Right of Kings - and another class struggling to remove it –natural rights.

Marx asked another important question: “what did these classes owe to their origin and their existence?”

Marx’s answer to this question was that the existence of a class was rooted in the material conditions of the time and the way in which society produces and exchanges its means of subsistence.

Feudalism rested on the self-sufficient economy of small peasant communities in which there was little exchange and where the nobility through its military power protected these communities from invasion and provided some form of political cohesion.

However, when the towns began to appear with a separate handicraft industry and commerce a new class of capitalists began to develop. A class struggle began.

The capitalist class were further helped in their class struggle by the development in the 15th century of world trade and communication.

The development of large scale factories and technological discoveries like the steam engine also tilted the class struggle in the capitalist’s favour. The capitalist class began to possess both social wealth and social power.

By the mid to the late 18th century the capitalist class was producing its own ideas culminating in Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Increasingly the capitalist class would express its ideas and justification through political economy.

From the French Revolution onwards the capitalist class began to exercise political power particularly over the emerging working class who had been driven off the land into the cities and wage labour.

From these real events in history Marx was to conclude that political ideas were to be explained from the economic conditions of life and not the other way around.

History was placed on its real basis; that is people must work, secure their existence before they can pursue politics, religion, philosophy and so on.

Marx’s insight had important repercussions for Socialism.

Marx’s theory of history supported by historical facts showed that all previous written history had been a history of class struggle; that there has always existed ruling and ruled, exploiting and exploited classes.

Furthermore throughout history the majority of the human population had to perform arduous labour and little enjoyment.

Little could be done about this state of affairs. The means of production was primitive and owned by the ruling class of the time. Labourers could only produce a subsistence existence for themselves and a surplus for the ruling class.

The repercussion for Socialism was that capitalism has now so developed the means of production that was now possible albeit under different social conditions to provide abundantly and sufficiently for everyone. The capitalist class and capitalism had in fact become an impediment on the further development of the productive forces.

Marx said that the social relations of production held back the forces of production. This made Socialism necessary to allow the productive forces, which included social labour, to develop

Workers by abolishing class rule could use and extend the means of production to meet the needs of all society.

Discovery 2: Surplus Value

Marx’s second contribution was to show how the capitalist class exploited the working class.

There are two classes in capitalism: the capitalist class and the working class.

The capitalist class own the means of production while the working class do not own the means of production.

Workers are therefore forced to work and they are employed by selling their labour power or their ability to work. Labour power under capitalism is a commodity; sold for a wage and bought by the capitalist to be used with raw resources and machinery to produce commodities for sale in order to make a profit.

Marx showed that the value of commodity is determined by the socially necessary quantity of labour embodied in its production.

The value of labour power of an average worker during a period of time is also determined by the quantity of labour embodied in the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the worker and his family.

Suppose that the means of subsistence for a worker and his family for one day requires six hours of labour for their production then the value of labour for one day will be expressed in a sum of money which also embodies six hours of labour.

Let the capitalist pay the worker for the full value of his labour power.

If the worker works six hours of the day for the employer he has replaced the capitalist’s outlay of paying six hours of labour for six hours labour.

What does the capitalist get out of this transaction?

He has not bought the worker for six hours labour but for eight, nine or ten hours. This period is called by Marx unpaid labour. The worker does not only produce a value equivalent to his subsistence but also produces a surplus value.

Surplus value is divided among the whole capitalist class in the form of rent, interest and profit and supports its State apparatus.

The capitalist exploits the working class through appropriating its unpaid labour just as the slave owner did with his slaves and the feudal aristocrats did with their serfs.

This also highlighted the intellectual bankruptcy of political economy; there could be no general harmony of interests only class struggle.

Modern scientific socialism is based on these two facts. And it requires a revolutionary working class to act on them. What it does not mean is the construction of “socialist models” or "socialist utopias”.

Workers become socialists by understanding the practical facts about capitalism as a historical system with a beginning and end in class struggle based upon class exploitation through the minority ownership of the means of production.

Instead of offering workers utopias or socialist models the question Socialists should be asking, bearing in mind the facts set out by Marx and Engels is why Socialist movement is so slow.

The opponents of Socialism: production and distribution for social use

The Socialist objective is the establishment of a social system where all of society has its needs met, which includes satisfying work and a full and democratic participation in the affairs of society.

The Socialist Objective comes into conflict with the interests of the wealthy and economically powerful; the capitalist class who own the means of production and employ wage and salaried labour. They are the ones with the most to gain in retaining capitalism and the most to lose in the establishment of socialism.

The capitalist class constitutes a small minority in society but they pay for their interests to be defended; politicians, academics, journalists, the State and the state apparatus, policy institutes like the Adam Smith Institute, the Cato Institute and so on daily articulate and defend the interests of the capitalist class either sectionally or collectively.

The capitalist class constitutes the basic level of opposition to Socialism.

At the level of political ideas, as Marx and Engels noted in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, some of the rich can be disposed towards Socialism, but they are certainly a minority.

But the fiercest opponents of Socialism are to be found in the working class.

So how do the political ideas of the rich and powerful influence the beliefs of the working class? Does the capitalist class have the power to prevent Socialism?

Economic and Political Power

At the centre of anti-socialism is the economic and political power of a minority capitalist class. This power can be used most directly within companies themselves: to maintain power structures, to determine pay and conditions, to influence government, to gain subsidies or preferential care, to buy or sponsor politicians like Stephen Byers who described himself recently as a “cab for hire”-, to set up policy institutes and to pay or underwrite political parties.

But the open exercise of economic and political power of the capitalist class needs to be reinforced by a widespread resistance to Socialism and socialist ideas.

How long could the capitalist class withstand a determined commitment to socialism on part of a socialist majority of the working class? We believe very little time indeed.

It is therefore essential for the capitalist class and its political agents to prevent that political commitment from developing.

This is for the most part accomplished through the simple influence of daily habit. The working class is constantly immersed in anti-socialist way of life which appears to be natural and the only possibility for them to live their lives.

Workers believe they need employers who will give them a job pay them wages so that they can live. For non-socialist workers this is like breathing fresh air; you just do not question this economic equation.

And it is very hard to be a member of the working class without having to participate in the day to day mores of capitalism; competition for jobs, competition to retain a job and to struggle for higher wages and better working conditions.

To a large extent, institutions like the mass media and the school and university system reinforce ideas favourable to capitalism and unfavourable to Socialism.

Take, as an example, the study of economics particularly GCSE and A level economics. They are in fact a pro-capitalist economics depicting the market as harmonious and self-adjusting with no class conflict and exploitation. By the time the student gets to university they might be taught Marxian economics but it will be slanted towards state capitalism or the failed exercise of economic planning.

If Marx is taught at all his Labour Theory of Value would be written off as flawed; his three volumes of CAPITAL decried as inconsistent and his analysis of capitalism ridiculed as being stuck in the 19th century and overtaken by other economists like Keynes. There would be no course taught entitled “The Critique of Political Economy”.

Most students at university will see the study of their subject matter as a means to an academic career or job in the City. They will not question what they are taught. Only a few political eccentrics within universities do attack economics but they will be denied the prize of six figure salaries in the City and advising cabinet ministers or the captains of industry. Even dissent under capitalism comes with a price.

Anti-socialist ideas can also win workers’ support through its influence on the sense of their own identity –my country right or wrong, us and them, anti-immigration and so on.

Most workers find a way of accepting capitalism and their role within it.

In this way they come to identify how things are, however anti-working class and accept a conservative view of the world exemplified in the capitalist utopias found in the DAILY MAIL of a 1950’s England of thatched cottages; school boys doffing their hats to their elders; women waiting with pipe and slipper for the return of their husbands from work, no blacks, gays secured in their closets; everyone living the life of inhabitants of films like the Titchfield Thunderbolt by the Boulting Brothers; a John Major world of cricket greens, tea shops and warm beer at ease with itself in classless social harmony.

The arguments for capitalism appear plausible enough on their own. They get reinforced day after day by the ordinary processes of living, by schools, by popular entertainment, by the newspapers.

Is it any wonder that the working class believe capitalism is the best of all possible worlds.

Socialism’s Future.

The opponents of socialism seem well entrenched and ready for anything Socialists can throw at them. This is not new.

In the 1830’s following criticism by the Ricardian Socialists the economists of the capitalist class reformulated economics by replacing an objective labour theory of value with a subjective theory of value and produced three theories of profit which favoured the capitalist class. They also took control of the Mechanic Institutes to ensure only their economics justifying capitalism was taught.

After Marx’s devastating critique of political economy the same process was developed but this time universities like the London Scholl of Economics were founded by the Webb’s to ensure a utility theory of value was taught against the labour theory of value advocated by Marx.

Then when economic liberalism failed in the 1930’s in the face of the Great Depression Keynes’s was appointed saviour of capitalism and only his economics was studied in mainstream universities right up to the 1970’s. Then it was the turn of the Monetarists and Free Marketeers with their richly endowed policy institutes in the US and Britain. Now that their doctrines have failed it is back to Keynes.

Compare this with the resources at the disposal of Socialists who often seem ill-equipped and thin on the ground. What of these weaknesses and what can be done about them?

One problem is factionalism. The belief that there is quick cut to Socialism or that groups of Socialists are a barrier to a more rapid growth. Or that the problem is the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES.

That is not to say Socialists have to think and act the same. The tactics for defending capitalism are basically defensive –the capitalists and their politicians just simply oppose Socialism.

The strategy for changing capitalism involves not only politics but imagination and democratic discussion and agreement. So there is bound to be different points of view with a Socialist organisation. That in itself is not a problem. But disagreements, when they occur, have to take place within agreed principles and a commonly held Socialist objective.

A Socialist could say and should say that better taking part in political action than stay quiescent and accommodate oneself to capitalism. Better to say “I refuse my consent” and “I stand in line for no one” that to consent to a system of war, poverty and exploitation.

We do not know how and where Socialist ideas will pollinate. We are, at this stage in the class struggle to establish socialism, like thinly spread dandelions. We scatter our ideas; some will land on barren soil; some will germinate. That, at the end of the day, is all that can be asked of us. What will remain is capitalism’s contradictions which generate class conflict and class struggle. It may currently be hard to gain an audience for Socialist ideas but is impossible for capitalist politicians to run capitalism in the interest of all society.

The Prospects for Socialism

A sustained political struggle is impossible without the vision of a better society that we can, in principle and in outline, imagine. In fact IMAGINE by John Lennon carries in three minutes some important Socialists ideas that no lengthy exposition of a future Socialist society could achieve.

Yet we must begin with objective conditions.

And in doing so we have to address the working class as we find it and the capacity it has to free itself from the capital-labour relationship.

Marx believed the working class has a revolutionary potential.

Reflecting on even this sketchy account of the political powers ranged against Socialism, how can a Socialist express any optimism?

The most confident answer is provided by Marxism which was set out in the first part of this talk. They provide facts about capitalism as a social system which will not go away.

Marxism, by focusing on the class struggle as a political struggle of “the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority” locates the means to establish Socialism and the class who has to do it. The working class has to pass from being a class in itself to a class for itself.

CAPITAL, Marx’s great study of capitalism, shows the forces acting on the class struggle. One simple fact emerges; the capitalist class can never leave the workers alone; they have to exploit them under pain of competition. And more importantly; capitalism can never be run in the interest of all society.

While private ownership of the means of production persists there will be class struggle; dissent, questioning and the creation of socialists.

The fact that workers were able to found a principled political party in 1904 shows that Socialism has good prospects. If workers were not cut out for Socialism the Party would not have been established. This sweeps away a lot of petty and powerful arguments against Socialism.

One thing is certain – Socialism will never come about if we all throw our hands up in despair. In the end, the strength of the enemies of Socialism is not the argument against it, but the challenge to the world’s working class.

The working class are revolutionary or they are nothing (MECW Volume 42, p. 94) Marx once remarked.

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