Frederick Engels on the Historical Development of Modern Socialism
In the first chapter of Part Three of his classic work Anti-Dühring, Engels discusses the origins of the modern socialist movement. He begins with the enthronement of "Reason" by the pre-revolutionary 18th century French philosophers who thought that only reason could be used to answer any of the questions of existence.
After the overthrow of Louis XVI and the abolition of the monarchical French state, a new state was constructed by the revolutionaries-- one based on "eternal" reason and designed to be completely rational. The spiritual progenitor of this state was Rousseau's book “The Social Contract”.
But "eternal" reason turned out to be simply the explanation of existence from the point of view of the rising bourgeois class. The complexity of the new political reality they had created quite eluded them as the contradictions between their class and the newly conscious masses of the disposed poor of Paris and the countryside began to manifest themselves.
The wretched of the earth exerted themselves and the bourgeois rational state fell apart and morphed into the Reign of Terror under which the masses, for a moment, gained "the mastery" and saved the Revolution. With the abolition of feudalism the bourgeoisie had expected social peace but instead got a furious international response and the development of an intense struggle between the poor and the rich at home.
After Robespierre (who is reviled to this day) and the Jacobins, representing the French masses, were overthrown on 9 Thermidor Year II (July 27, 1794) by the conservative bourgeoisie, the new ruling class lost faith in its own ability to rule. After five years of corrupt government under the Directory, they surrendered to the coup d’état by Napoleon Bonaparte on 18 Brumaire Year IX (November 9, 1799).
All this turmoil was a reflection of the "development of industry upon a capitalist basis [which] made poverty and misery of the working masses conditions of existence of society." From the dispossessed Paris masses (the "have-nothings" and other disadvantaged groups the proletariat began to develop "as the nucleus of a new class." However, at this time "the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed."
At this historical juncture the three "founders" of socialism appeared: Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. First on the scene was Claude Henri Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825). The Revolution was supposed to be a victory of the Third Estate (production workers) over a ruling class of idlers (the nobility and the Catholic hierarchy and its priests). But, in reality Engels says, the victory did not go to the Third Estate as a whole but only that part of it owning property, "the socially privileged part."
Saint-Simon saw the Revolution as a struggle between "workers" (anyone engaged in productive activity) and "idlers"-- people living off unearned income. For him "the workers were not only the wage workers, but also the manufacturers, the merchants, and the bankers." Science and Industry must move to the forefront and lead the revolution. The undeveloped nature of the class struggle within the Third Estate is apparent-- the proletariat and the capitalists are in the same "class." (I can't say the vast majority of the American people have gone much beyond that stage of consciousness yet but it has recently begun to dawn on them that class struggle is real).
Saint-Simon's heart was in the right place as he wanted to improve the conditions of the lowest and greatest number of the Third Estate-- what would become the proletariat and included the masses of downtrodden peasants, the most numerous and poor; Engels quotes him: "la class la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre." However his socialism was utopian as he expected the bankers to lead the way into the new world! "The bankers especially were to be called upon to direct the whole of social production by the regulation of credit." Ironically the bankers today, the finance capitalists, do control production but in their interests not those of "la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre."
Saint-Simon actually thought the rich bourgeoisie, bankers and manufacturers, would change themselves into public servants and use their ruling positions to help the poor and oppressed. But at least he realized the "poor and oppressed" made up the majority of "the people" (Third Estate). In fact Engels credits him with understanding that the Revolution was a three way struggle-- Nobility vs. the Bourgeoisie AND the propertyless masses even though there was a tendency to group the latter two together when contrasted to the Nobility.
His greatness was in proclaiming that "all men ought to work" and recognizing that within the bourgeois revolution the Reign of Terror represented the power of "the toiling masses" against the haute bourgeoisie. Engels quotes Saint-Simon addressing himself to the poor masses: "See what happened in France at the time when your comrades held sway there; they brought about a famine." The "they" are the bourgeois enemies of Robespierre and the rule of the Parisian sans culottes.
Saint-Simon also saw a future where economics was more important than politics , i.e., the administration of things (planned economy) over the administration of people (the bourgeois state)-- i.e, he envisioned "the abolition of the state." We find in Saint-Simon the seeds, Engels says, of "almost all the ideas of later Socialists that are not strictly economic."
Following on the appearance of Saint-Simon came the ideas of Francois-Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837). He contrasted the actual living conditions of the people after the establishment of bourgeois rule ("material and moral misery") with the pictures of what life would be like painted by their pre-revolutionary propaganda and by the "rose-colored phraseology of the bourgeois ideologists of his time."
In his first book, “The Theory of the Four Movements” (1808) he wrote, "Social progress and changes of a period are accompanied by the progress of women towards freedom, while the decay of the social system brings with it a reduction of the freedoms enjoyed by women." Therefore, "Extension of the rights of women is the basic principle of all social progress."
Engels says of him, with respect to the above passage, that: "He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman's emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation." This not only tells us a lot about Saudi Arabia, but where our own society is heading with its failure to pass an Equal Rights Amendment and the movement to restrict the right to abortion, as well as the 2011 Supreme Court ruling that the women discriminated against for years at Walmart have no right to a class action suit to redress their grievances.
Fourier also divided the history of human development up to the present era into "four stages of evolution," which were 1.) Savagery 2.) the Patriarchate 3.) Barbarism, and 4.) Civilization. In this scheme "Civilization" appears with the development of capitalism in the 1500s and he says "that the civilized stage raises every vice practiced by barbarism in a simple fashion into a form of existence, complex, ambiguous, equivocal [and] hypocritical."
Engels says that for Fourier civilization develops along "a vicious circle" throwing up contradictions it cannot resolve and arriving at the exact opposite destinations that it wants to arrive at or at least pretends to want to arrive at so that, as Fourier writes, "under civilization POVERTY IS BORN OF SUPER-ABUNDANCE ITSELF." For example the US, the richest country in the world, has 25% of its children at or under the official poverty line-- a completely ridiculous society! The Democrats have congratulated themselves for passing a bill (the Covid-19 Economic Relief Bill) that lifts half of these children out of poverty (leaving the other half to wallow in it.)
One of the things Engels admires about Fourier is his masterly use of the dialectical method in his writings, which he compares to that of Hegel "his contemporary." Engels also says something curious here. He says Fourier postulates the "ultimate destruction of the human race" which he introduced into historical science just as Kant had introduced the "ultimate destruction of the Earth" into natural science. But, in this pre-Star Trek world, Kant's end of the Earth scenario would have entailed the end of the human race as well.
Saint-Simon and Fourier were products of the French Revolution but, Engels points out, at the same time over in England just as great a revolution was taking place. The whole basis of bourgeois society was being changed by the development of steam engines and tool making machines and manufacture (from the Latin "manus" hand) was being replaced by gigantic factories where machines tended by workers began to to turn out commodities rather than commodities directly made by hand , "thus revolutionizing the whole foundation of bourgeois society."
This industrial revolution began to divide society into a powerful group of capitalists on one hand, and propertyless proletarians on the other. The heretofore large and stable middle class began to break up and tended to be forced down into the lower class of workers-- "it now led a precarious existence." Sound familiar?
However, then the term "middle class" had a different meaning than it does now. Then it meant the class of artisans and small shopkeepers who thrived in the era of manufacture. Now it is used to refer to an income group consisting of well paid workers and professionals whose wages were partially subsidized by the mega-profits of the imperialist international capitalist corporations who bought a modicum of social peace at home at the expense of the international solidarity of first world workers with third world workers and peasants by the creation of a labor aristocracy, according to Lenin, in the metropolitan countries.
Professionals such as lawyers, doctors and the parasitical class of preachers and priests were also included. With the decline of high paying production jobs in the West due to the rise of industry in the third world, among other factors, these high wage jobs are disappearing forcing the "middle class" down into lower paying jobs and so, as in the first days of capitalism, it now leads "a precarious existence."
Another difference is that today we have labor unions, pro-working class political parties and associations, and growing class awareness which is developing into a major class battle for the protection of people's jobs, lifestyles and incomes. This battle is just beginning and should grow as today's world capitalist system proceeds further down the path of decay and self destruction.
But in the England of the early 1800s, capitalism was on the rise and not the decline. It was into this world that the third great early founder of socialism arose: Robert Owen (1771-1858). Owen was a materialist in philosophy and thought that humans were the product of their heredity (although at this time nothing was known of genes or DNA or any of the mechanisms of heredity) and their environment, most particularly their childhood environment.
For 29 years (1800-1829) he managed New Lanark, the large cotton-mill employing around 2500 "hands" in Scotland. And, Engels says, by "simply placing the people in conditions worthy of human beings" the workers lived in a society without "drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, [or] charity." He sent all the children off to school at age 2, put the working day at 101/2 hours (not the 13 or 14 that was the norm) and kept everyone on full wages when there was a four month shut down due to a cotton crisis AND made large profits and doubled the value of the business. Well, my goodness! Why didn't all the capitalists follow suit?
They didn't follow suit, for the same reason Owen fought with the other shareholders at new Lanark-- they didn't like the extra expenses that had to be put out for "conditions worthy of human beings." After Owen left in 1829 the community continued, in one form or another, under different capitalists, until 1968 when it went bust. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site drawing in around 400,000 tourists a year to visit it and the house where Owen lived.
In his work "The Revolution in Mind and Practice" (1849) Owen wrote he was unhappy with New Lanark because "The people were slaves at my mercy." He pointed out that New Lanark's 2500 workers, with steam power, created as much social wealth as it took 600,000 workers to create a couple of generations earlier. Those 600,000 had to be paid living wages just as the 2500-- so what happened to all the surplus wealth saved in wages that would have gone to 597,500 extra workers? It was pocketed by the capitalists.
This new wealth was being generated all over England. It was being used to wage the wars of the Empire and to maintain an oppressive aristocratic and bourgeois order at home. "And yet this new power was the creation of the working class." Owen wanted this vast new wealth to go to the working class that created it for the building of a new society in which it would be, as Engels says "the common property of all, to be worked for the common good of all."
In his day, because of his reforms at New Lanark, Owen was considered a great philanthropist. He was lionized and respected and welcome at the tables of the rich and powerful. But as soon as he started talking about the working class creating all the wealth and how it ought to build a new society based on "common property" he was dropped like a hot potato, became persona non grata, and shunned by official society. He therefore went to the working class and became a union leader and, Engels says, "Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen."
Owen called for the overthrow of three great impediments to the advance of the working class and the reform of society along communist lines-- private property, religion, and "the present form of marriage (Engels)." Marriage is going through some radical changes nowadays and it is certainly very different from the forms of marriage Owen would have seen in the early 19th century. But private property and religion (i.e., supernaturalism and superstition) are still major impediments that hold back social progress for workers. Hopefully, all three impediments will eventually be abolished or die out.
The last few pages of this chapter Engels devotes to vituperative attacks against Dühring and his negative views of the three utopians compared to whom Dühring is a pipsqueak. Engels says Dühring displays "a really frightful ignorance of the works of the three utopians." These works are still worth reading (Dühring's are not) and whatever limitations they have were the result of the undeveloped conditions of early industrial capitalism.
But, since the time of the utopians and Engels’ day (the 1870s) "modern industry has developed the contradictions laying dormant in the capitalist mode of production into such crying antagonisms that the approaching collapse of this mode of production is, so to speak, palpable."
Well it may have been "palpable" to Engels, but capitalism is still around, sad to say. And once again the palpability of capitalist collapse is in the air. From the economic woes in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, and the Euro-zone in general and the rise of fascist parties in France and Germany to the failure of the recovery in the United States and the desperate turn to the Tea Party which led to the neofascism of Trump and the Republican party (and some elements of the Democratic party as well), and the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with home grown fascism attacking minority communities and the workers and their unions, the smell of capitalist decay is everywhere. Let us hope this generation of workers will pay due to the long ago optimism of Frederick Engels.
Next: “The Theoretical Development of Modern Socialism” (Anti-Dühring, Part III, Chapter Two).
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.