Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Frederick Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

This little book by Engels packs a hard punch. It is, in a few short pages, both a summary and a detailed explanation of the basics of Marxist ideas. It starts with the development of capitalism - the way that capitalism develops out of the old feudal order, bringing with it both a new way of organising production, but also it's own gravedigger. Alongside this Engels examines the way that ideas change - rooted as they are in the material circumstances that people live in, the development of capitalism means that the old ways of looking at the universe no longer fit.

In particular, Engels looks at the Utopian socialists, thinkers who believed that rational thought and organisation would be enough to solve the twin problems of capitalism - "the class antagonisms prevailing in modern society between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage workers, and on the other, of the anarchy ruling in production". But Engels shows how these problems aren't simply about the organisation of capitalism, they are endemic. And despite the well-meaning and idealistic visions of many early socialist thinkers, "modern socialism" is about the struggle for a new way of organising society - a higher order.

At the time of publication, Engels' short book was more popular than the Communist Manifesto. It's an accessible work, designed and aimed at working men and women. Explaining everything from the origin of capitalist crisis to the role of the state as an instrument of oppression of one state by another it still has much to offer.

One interesting part is the way that he looks at nationalisation as being a key aspect of later day capitalism - he uses this to challenge those who think that it is enough to nationalise industries to create a socialist society. In one footnote, he jokes that were this true, Fredrick William III would have been a socialist for his nationalisation of the brothels. And this is another aspect to this book - Engels' writing is full of humour and barbed jokes.

Another important point is Engels' examination of the role of the state. In particular he shows how the state cannot simply be abolished, but must wither gradually away after the workers have defeated capitalism.

For those who want an excellent introduction to the basic ideas of Marxism, this little book cannot be recommended enough, together with the Communist Manifesto, it is a good starting point. It is worth digging out a version that has the 1880 forward by Karl Marx (to the French Edition) and Engels' own introduction to the first English Edition of 1892 which puts the discussion into the context of the UK's own historical development, in particular with regard to the particular role that religion played on these isles.

Related Reviews

Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England
Hunt - The Frock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

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