Britain  •  Education

The origins of scientific socialism

01 July 1998

By Richard Brenner

Marxism: The Basics is a series of articles to introduce readers, especially new and young readers, to the fundamental ideas and arguments of revolutionary Marxism. The importance of such ideas is twofold: first, they alone explain the crisis-ridden, class-divided world we live in; second, armed with these ideas, workers and youth can change the world.

In the first article, we explain the origins and development of socialist ideas and how Marx and Engels transformed these ideas into a scientific critique of capitalism and rooted the fight for socialism in the struggle of the modern working class.

THE MODERN socialist movement originates with the Communist League, led by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which published The Communist Manifesto 150 years ago as an expression of its world view, principles and aims.

The Manifesto establishes as its goal a very different kind of society:

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Marx and Engels did not invent socialism. The idea of a classless society based on collective ownership of property existed long before 1848 and predates the rise of the modem working class movement.

During the 17th through 19th centuries, the capitalist class wrested supremacy from the feudal nobility. The great revolutions of this period gave rise to egalitarian and democratic thinking. At its most radical this thinking took socialist forms.

In the English Civil War of 1642–52 communistic ideas were popularised by Gerrard Winstanley and the movement known as the Diggers. During the French Revolution of 1789–93, Babeuf and the “Conspiracy of Equals” proposed revolutionary struggle for a socialist society. By 1800 there was a growing recognition among radicals that—despite its stated principles of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality—capitalist society afforded neither liberty, brotherhood, nor fairness to its new and growing class of wage-labourers.

One socialist writer of this time was Claude Henri Saint-Simon. In 1802 he attacked the continued domination of post-revolutionary France by the old classes based on privilege, parasitism and idleness. He argued for the complete absorption of politics and the state into a rational organisation of the economy, to be founded on the principle that everyone should work.

Although Saint-Simon was able to show the importance of class divisions in the French Revolution of 1789, he was writing before the emergence of a sizeable industrial working class. He therefore identified the two main social classes as “workers” and “idlers”. The “workers” included those capitalists involved in production and distribution—including manufacturers and bankers, the key interest groups in the new capitalist system. His writings were designed to convince all of these “work­ers” that socialism would be a more rational way to organise society.

The most acerbic critic of early capitalism was Francois-Marie Fourier. In his 1808 book, Theory of the Four Movements, he attacked the French bourgeoisie’s hypocrisy, exposing the real human misery of the poorest classes. He condemned the cynical trickery of the ruling elite explaining how “poverty is born of superabundance itself”.

ln England. the manufacturer Robert Owen promoted the theory that the character of human beings is determined by the conditions in which they develop. He established and managed a “model colony” at New Lanark in Scotland, with a fixed 10-hour working day, a great deal of personal liberty for the workers and one of the earliest ever infant school schemes.

Nevertheless, Owen was dissatisfied that the workers remained under his direction as manager and proprietor. He wanted to bring about a communist commonwealth in which all wealth and property would be held collectively. He established co-operative communes as models of the rational society he proposed. He succeeded in forcing parliament to pass a law limiting the hours of factory work for women and children. In 1834 Owen was the key figure in the creation of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, the first ever attempt at a national workers’ confederation.

Marx and Engels recognised and were indebted to the ideas and experiments of these early socialists. They valued them because they “attack every principle of existing society.” Yet they criticised their theories and schemes, referring to them as those of “Utopian socialists”.

The Russian Marxist, Lenin, later summed up Marx and Engels’ view of Utopian socialism:

“It criticised capitalist society, it condemned and damned it. It dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavoured to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation. But utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage-slavery under capitalism. It could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of the new society.”

Marx wrote that the utopians could see the real class divisions and the antagonistic interests of the main classes in modern society but could not yet see the possibility of the working class uniting in mass struggle:

“The proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”

For this reason, the utopian socialists developed out of their own heads, rather than out of the real conditions of capitalist society, blueprints for a better, more just and equal society. They then tried to convince the whole of society, including the capitalists, that it would be better for everyone to follow their socialist model, “for how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?”

The problem was that the reforming utopians’ experiments were doomed to failure. The effects of capitalist competition rendered most small scale co­operatives unable to compete in a growing capitalist market. The capitalists could not be convinced by appeals to reason, because it was in their immediate interest to maximise their own profits and compete effectively with their rivals.

The rationalism of the utopian reformers could not account for the material foundations of the prevailing ideas of the ruling capitalist class. Every major reform in the interests of the workers, whether economic or political, had to be forced out of the capitalists by working class organisation, campaigning and action.

Marx and Engels had the great advantage over previous socialist thinkers of living at a time when the industrial workers were beginning to combine as a class for economic and even directly political ends. In the 1830s and 1840s the Chartist movement in Britain agitated for universal male suffrage (which would enable working class men to vote).

Violent general strikes and insurrectionary risings by Chartist workers demonstrated the capacity of the proletariat to fight for its own aims. And as competition drove out the smaller, weaker capitalists, creating ever larger concerns and concentrating ownership in fewer and fewer hands, the new working class grew in size.

Later, in his major book on economics, Capital, Marx showed how capitalist development caused a growth both in monopolies and in the size of the working class, leading necessarily in the direction of a socialist transformation of society:

“Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates. who usurp and monopolise all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united, and organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter on the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The death knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

Modem socialism, therefore, linked its aims to a real social phenomenon. The development of capitalism itself spurred the development of its successor.

The struggle of the workers for a shorter working day, higher wages, rudimentary social provision, education and voting rights brought them into a permanent conflict with the employers. Here was a force which had a direct interest in the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist commonwealth. The proletariat’s strength in numbers and centrality in production gave it both the force and the cohesion to effect sweeping social change.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude from this that socialist ideas and consciousness arise spontaneously within the working class and its organisations. If this were the case, Marx and Engels would never have found it necessary to organise a political party to bring socialist ideas into the working class movement. The dominant set of ideas in any society are those of its ruling class, and “bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology . . . it is more fully developed, and has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination” (Lenin).

The spontaneous struggle of the workers against their employers tends, of its own accord, to result in demands for necessary improvements and reforms, but not ordinarily in the demand for a complete break with the capitalist organisation of society. These ideas, which arise only on the basis of an understanding of the whole of society have to be formulated through the medium of a political party. It is the task of the revolutionary party to take these ideas into the working class movement, to fight for their triumph among workers over other, bourgeois and petit bourgeois ideas.

Only such an organisation, uniting millions of workers through a democratic structure, armed with a scientific socialist theory, centralised and disciplined in relentless struggle, can raise the working class from a class in itself, struggling over the price at which it sells its labour-power to the capitalists, into a class for itself, striving to overthrow class society and build socialism.

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