Paul Foot

Vision of a new world

(May 1993)

Review Article, Socialist Review, No.164, May 1993, p.20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Frederick Engels’ revolutionary pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific has recently been reprinted. It can inspire a new generation of socialists, says Paul Foot

Socialism; Utopian and Scientific, price £2.95, is available from Bookmarks.

When I first read this little book 32 years ago, the strongest force on the Marxist left was the Communist Party. I expect I read it very much as the Communists presented it. Its main message, I gathered, was that the French writers St Simon and Fourier and the British philanthropist Robert Owen were a lot of footling dreamers who just didn’t understand the basic point about socialism – that it was a science.

Utopians were illusionists who dreamed of a better world. Marxists understood politics like chemists or biologists understood science. And the most wonderful thing about understanding the science of socialism was that it was bound to come.

It was a bit of a shock to read the book again all those years later and find out that it says just about the opposite of what I remembered. All three ‘Utopians’, especially Fourier, are so brilliantly and enthusiastically presented that I longed to read more of them. None of the three turned out to be the vacuous dreamers I’d imagined. Engels, one of the least sectarian writers in all history, praises them to the skies for their powerful and forceful indictments of the divided societies of their time, and, in Owen’s case at any rate, for the communist alternative he proposed.

If ‘Utopian’ just means dreamer or visionary, then no one was more Utopian than Frederick Engels. What about this for instance?

‘The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now conies under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real conscious Lord of Nature, because he has now become master of his own social organisation.’

That’s a vision of a new world, a better world, a world worth fighting for, a world to win. Engels’ socialist conviction didn’t just emerge, like a scientific discovery emerges, from observation and experiment. It arose from a deep sense of outrage at the miseries and exploitations of a society ‘where workers are in want of subsistence because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence.’

But does ‘Utopia’ just mean a better society? No, it means what it says: ‘ou’ (Greek for not) ‘topia’ (Greek for place) – no place. The point about Utopia is that it doesn’t exist. It is a world of fantasy. Engels’ complaint about the Utopian socialists was that they were driven by ‘an “idea” existing somehow in eternity before the world was’. They compared their eternal idea of how society might be to what it is. Engels, by contrast, showed how society could be changed by understanding what it is.

For the Utopians, then, ‘socialism conquers the world by virtue of its own power.’ This could happen at any time in history. The history of the Utopians circled around their idea. They had no conception of any historical development.

All this changed with the ‘discovery’ of Karl Marx that the motive force of history was the clash between the class which had the property and those who hadn’t.

Capitalism, the most modern class society, had for the first time developed productive forces so hugely that everyone in the world could share out what was produced. There was now no longer any need of class society. There could be a better society. That socialist society is not Utopian precisely because it is possible – it can be brought about.

How did Marx discover this? Was it just because he was one of the most brilliant intellectuals who ever lived? Not at all. If he had lived at the time of St Simon or Fourier he could have been ten times the genius he was but he would not and could not have put forward his theory of class struggle. What enabled him to do so was the movement of the class struggle itself, from the first general strike, in Lyons in 1831, to the great uprisings of the British Chartists in 1839. These outbreaks of mass working class resistance ushered Marx’s theories onto the intellectual stage – not the other way round.

What is the main point about socialism, therefore?

‘Its task is no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism have of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.’

The road to a new society passes straight through the old one. The seeds of the new society are sown in the struggle against the old one. This is essentially what ‘scientific’ socialism means. Engels talks later about the ‘inevitable downfall’ of capitalism. I find that a most unscientific conclusion. If socialism is scientifically inevitable, why fight for it?

Engels’ main argument was with the idealists, the socialists who thought their ideas were more important than the real conditions and struggles of the less educated mob. His book concentrates so hard on showing that we cannot get to socialism through having an eternal idea that he devotes only a line or two of generalities on how we do get there.

There are plenty of other books (most of them by Lenin) on that point. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is a lively and quite beautifully written summary of Marx’s main economic ideas and where they come from. It is far more passionate than the most fanatical Utopian and far easier to understand than the simplest scientist. It’s also, perhaps most importantly, a powerful antidote to despair. If this best-selling expression of revolutionary confidence could be written in 1877, right in the middle of a downturn which lasted 40 years, who are we to complain of a miserable little blip which hasn’t lasted half as long?


Last updated on 27.11.2004