Frederick Engels on the Theoretical Development of Modern Socialism

by: Thomas Riggins
November 4 2011

http://www.politicalaffairs.net/frederick-engels-on-the-theoretical-development-of-modern-socialism/

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.

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.

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