Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - Some Early Utopian Socialists.

Engels based his argument for Socialism on the class struggle and the materialist conception of history, which he and Marx had jointly worked out and which was summarised by Marx in his 1859 Preface to his CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY.

... all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggle... these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange; in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; the economic structure of society always furnished the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period... From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. ...

In 1904, the founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain drew up a summary of a Marxist manifesto. In the SPGB’s DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, the basis of the Party’s case, the key points of the Marxist case are to be found: what we mean by Socialism, the class struggle, and how Socialism can be achieved. As the machinery of government defends the interests of the capitalist class, it is essential for the Socialist movement to gain political power in order to ensure that this power, with its armed forces and police, cannot be used to crush the workers.

But Utopian Socialists, libertarians and anarchists; those who believe in the use of direct action or the general strike, or communes and workers’ cooperatives and so on: they all reject the need for political organisation as the only feasible means for achieving Socialism and ending the class system.

To all these, Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as an absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school. And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive of one another. Hence, from this, nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average Socialism... Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more the definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.

Engels concluded that passage by declaring that: “To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis”. Consider what is meant by science and the scientific method. Science is incremental, constantly building on past achievements and discoveries so as to develop a better understanding and new theories. It was said of one great scientist that he “stood on the shoulders of giants”. This too was true of Marx and Engels. In one of our pamphlets, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM (1995) we made the same point:-

We should recognise that Marx, like Darwin, carried on from the work of people before him, and again, like Darwin, there were other people working more or less on the same lines. It is not true that Marx and Engels formulated the Materialist Conception of History in a vacuum... It would in fact be a denial of the Materialist Conception of History if one took the view that Marx formulated the Materialist Conception of History all on his own and out of nowhere.

So why bother with the Utopian Socialists? What is there in their thinking that can be of use to us, now? The answer is that, as some of the ideas these early Utopian Socialists expressed are now part and parcel of what we think of as Marxism, it is worth our while to take a look at the ways some of their ideas influenced Marx and Engels.

First, a general point about the role of ideas:

The MCH does not deny the influence of ideas... ideas, once they have been developed, attain a semi-independent existence of their own, and persist in their influence for quite a long time.

Engels acknowledged the influence of three important early Utopian Socialists: St Simon 1760-1825, Fourier 1772-1837, and Robert Owen 1771-1858. All of these were influenced by ideas that were around in the later part of the 18th century, about the time of the French Revolution. But their important publications and activities were in the early part of the 19th century, before 1848, the Year of Revolutions, the year of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO..

Engels later wrote of this early Utopian Socialism:

The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them... It could only reject them as bad. The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitation of the working class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose.

In the early part of the 19th century, when these early Utopian Socialists were active, the working class had not yet developed as a class. Even the term “working class” did not appear in England till after 1815, and in France it was not used much till after 1830.

In this early period, class struggle in France was sporadic, disorganised and very local, e.g. the 1834 insurrection of silk-weavers in Lyons. These French workers had been influenced by the ‘socialistic’ writings of Babeuf, Blanqui, Blanc and Proudhon. In Germany, before 1848, there were very few industrial enterprises: e.g. in 1846 Krupp, later an industrial giant, employed only 150 workers. During this early period, in France and Germany rural labourers were being forced off the land, and confronted – as Chinese workers are today - with the horrific social effects of early industrialisation, described vividly by Engels in his book, THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND in 1844.

Before Engels, at the start of the 19th century, Robert Owen, himself of working-class origin, had also been horrified, by the condition of the New Lanark mills workforce and their families, and wrote this description:

The population lived in idleness, in poverty, in almost every kind of crime; consequently, in debt, out of health, and in misery... at this period, they possessed all the vices and very few of the virtues of a social community. Theft and the receipt of stolen goods was their trade, idleness and drunkenness their habit, falsehood and deception their garb, dissensions, civil and religious, their daily practice...
A NEW VIEW OF SOCIETY, 1813, pp 27-30

Utopian influences on Marx and Engels

Since the ideas Marx and Engels developed are part of what we think of as ‘Marxism’, we should look at the way some of those early Utopian Socialists influenced their thinking, and consequently our own.

A summary of how Socialism would work is that it would be on the principle of: “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. This particular idea possibly came from Babeuf: in a letter in 1787, in response to a Utopian proposal for “a new republic”, he described the principle of reciprocity: Suppose a poor man is only able to knit, then he will make stockings:

... for the farmers, for the cooks, for the wine-growers, for the fabric-makers, for the shoemakers, for the wig-makers, for the masons, for the men of law etc.; and these men in return will procure for him bread, good food, wine, clothing, shoes, head-dress, lodging, and the general preservation of all his rights. There will be the same reciprocity through all the levels of society; and I hope that, in this way, everyone will be perfectly satisfied.
See SOCIALIST THOUGHT, ed. Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, 1964, p50

He argued that such a society would “assure to every men and to his posterity, no matter how numerous it may be, as much as they need, but no more than they need”. Babeuf also wrote that this could be achieved by a “common administration. to establish a simple administration of needs” (ibid., p 67). Many years later, we find much the same idea expressed by Engels when he wrote of “government over people” being replaced by a simple “administration of things”.

The three Utopian Socialists that Engels referred to, critically but with appreciation, were ahead of their time but none of them were revolutionary. While they wanted the condition of the poor improved, they did not have any expectation of the poor, the working class, themselves acting to change society. Their appeals were to the rulers, to ‘society’ or ‘humanity in general’ – not to the working class as a class. The class struggle was not central to their thinking.

That is the key difference between Utopian and Scientific Socialism. We see revolutionary class struggle as the motive force which drives historical change, and in 1848 in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO Marx and Engels stated clearly their rejection of the various schools of Utopian Socialists:

The founders of these systems see, indeed, the class antagonisms... in the prevailing form of society. But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement... In the formation of their plans they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.

For instance, St Simon argued for “the most rapid possible amelioration of the condition of the poorest class” and appealed to the Princes: “What measures have you taken to ameliorate the moral and physical existence of the poor classes?” (ibid., pp 82 and 101).

But St Simon had some influence on Marx and Engels. He saw history as evolving, with technological developments leading to changing social relations (ibid,. p75). After his death, a lecture was given by some of his supporters and published as THE DOCTRINE OF THE ST SIMONIANS (1828). Its opening statement read: “Gentlemen, Society today considered as a whole, presents the aspect of two armed camps.” That sounds remarkably like the classic statement by Marx and Engels in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.

This idea of society as being divided into two opposing classes is still recognisable today as a hallmark of Marxism.

The idea of alienation is central to Marx’s thinking about capitalism, and there are some passages hinting at this in that 1828 St Simonian DOCTRINE. Like Marx and Engels, the writers started from the real world, from “a careful examination of social relations”. Without regret for the bondage of the feudal past, they noted the alienation of this new world, this new social order, ‘a critical epoch’: “in which all society presents itself as only an agglomeration of isolated individuals at war with one another” (ibid., p 107). They also looked forward to a future world, one in which warring self-interest and nationalism would disappear, and be replaced by the “universal family of man”.

But how to get from here to there? They argued that this new social order was “a consequence of the law of development of humanity”(ibid., p 106). They recognised that historical or social evolution developed according to certain laws. This theme too was later developed by Marx and Engels.

It is clear that you do not need to look far in Marx’s writings, from GRUNDRISSE and the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO onwards, to find evidence of the influence of St Simon and his followers.

Engels noted a debt to Fourier with regard to his views on women: Fourier “was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of women’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation” (SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, 1892). Also, there was Fourier’s conception of the history of society, divided so far “into four stages of evolution – savagery, barbarism, the patriarchate, and civilisation” ,i.e. modern bourgeois society.

Fourier’s conception of social evolution closely resembled what Engels described in his book THE ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE, which was based on Marx’s notes on Lewis H Morgan’s book ANCIENT SOCIETY. The idea of social evolution as proceeding by stages, from earlier forms such as savagery and barbarism through to modern capitalism: this part of Marxist thinking seems to have been derived at least in part from Fourier.

Fourier wrote at a time when the working class was not yet a developed class, and so could not act to change society. Also he was a Utopian, not a revolutionary: his idea was to set up phalanxes – quasi-cooperative communities where all members would have shares in the products, but capital would take a third of the profits. These visionary schemes he worked out in detail, and after his death attempts were made in the US to put his ideas into practice, notably in Massachusetts. But they all failed, due to disagreements or lack of finance.

One of the most significant and lasting aspects of Fourier’s thinking was to do with the importance of making work varied and enjoyable. He had a horror of the factory system:

... [which is] a double torment, even in the most vaunted of work-shops, such as the spinning factories of England where the people, even the children, work fifteen hours a day, under the lash...

Fourier argued that work is a necessity, and should be enjoyable. What people need is to keep being able to change from one type of work to another, so as to have variety, so as not to get bored with the work: in short, so as to be able to enjoy it, to get pleasure from it. This idea is also found in Marx’s CAPITAL [vol I, chap XV – The Factory] where Marx contrasted work in manufacturing with factory work:

In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage.

Marx then quoted from Engels’s CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND where Engels had reported the view of a Doctor Kay who had written that:

The wearisome routine of endless drudgery, in which the same mechanical process is ever repeated, is like the torture of Sisyphus; the burden of toil, like the rock, is ever falling back on the worn-out drudge.

Later William Morris also took up this theme, protesting against a system of endless repetitive and monotonous toil where the wage-slave was forced to be like a machine: a system where the workers were simply used as machines “but machines more or less conscious of their own misery”. Some ideas can carry an influence down through many generations: so it was with Fourier.

Fourier also gave Marx and Engels another important insight about capitalism’s crises. As Engels argued in SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, crises are not caused by lack of demand – as Keynes argued. Far from it, as Engels wrote:

Means of production, means of subsistence, available labourers, all the elements of production and of general wealth are present in abundance. But “abundance becomes the source of distress and want” (Fourier) because it is the very thing that prevents the transformation of the means of production and subsistence into capital... the character of these crises is so clearly defined that Fourier hit all of them off, when he described the first as a ‘crise plethorique’, a crisis from plethora.

Crises occur when markets have become glutted and as a result commodities cannot be sold for a profit. So credit vanishes, factories are closed, and workers are laid off. Then after years of general stagnation, bit by bit production and exchange begin to move again – and the next thing you know production is again racing ahead, flat-out, until yet again markets become glutted, and so on.

Engels drew attention to Fourier’s remarkable insight. To be able to identify the true nature of capitalism’s crises as early as Fourier did was quite an achievement: his perception of this was something Marx and Engels benefited from.


The third Utopian Socialist was Robert Owen,. He was unlike St Simon and Fourier in that he was the only one of the three who came from a working-class background and also was the only one with direct experience of the factory system. Having run various firms in Manchester, he then found himself in charge of the New Lanark mill where he found a workforce which was thoroughly demoralised – criminal, immoral and ignorant.

He argued that our characters are not of our own making - they are made for us, not by us, especially in early years, when children are very impressionable. So he set about changing this New Lanark workforce and turning them into a model social community.

We are often told by the ignorant that Socialism just would not work because of ‘human nature’ - because of the greedy and lazy people. Owen’s theory and his work challenged this mistaken view. ‘Human nature’ is plastic – malleable. People have the potential to be good or bad - energetic or lazy, honest or dishonest. What determines how children turn out is the way they are raised, the example set by their parents and family, the opportunities they are given, the nature of their education. In short, the social environment is the key factor.

Owen himself firmly rejected the idea that he was some sort of impractical, visionary – a mere Utopian. By the time he went public in 1813 with his ideas on how to build a new society, he had already worked at it in New Lanark for 16 years. He argued he had proved his point: his theory did work, not just on paper, but in practice. His 1813 book A NEW VIEW OF SOCIETY was very successful, and already a third edition was in print by 1817 .

Owen was not satisfied with all he had done at New Lanark: after all, the people there were in his power - “they were slaves at my mercy”. He knew that the mills had been profitable, paying out good dividends to the proprietors, and he started to ask awkward questions as to just where the profits came from. Engels, in SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC (1892) quoted Owen on this:

... the working part of this population of 2,500 persons was daily producing as much real wealth for society as, less than half a century before, it would have required the working part of a population of 600,000 to create. I asked myself, what became of the difference between the wealth consumed by 2,500 persons and that which would have been consumed by 600,000?

Of course, the difference went to paying dividends to the owners. That meant the increasing productivity did not benefit the workers – a fact which applied to all mills and factories, not just to New Lanark.

Engels again quoted Owen:

If this new wealth had not been created by machinery... the wars of Europe, in opposition to Napoleon, and to support the aristocratic principles of society, could not have been maintained. And yet this new power was the creation of the working-classes.

By this point, Robert Owen had really crossed the line. He was no longer seen as a respectable, successful man of business, although a bit of a crank and a philanthropist. He had become a Communist – a danger to society, a man to be shunned.

Engels described what happened next. Owen was ruined by an attempt to establish a cooperative community in the USA called New Harmony, which lasted only five years, after which he returned to Britain. But he never stopped supporting the working class in various efforts to improve their conditions. As Engels wrote: “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen”.

For instance, in 1819 Owen succeeded in helping to bring in the first law to limit the working hours of women and children. When various trades unions decided in 1834 to form a joint association, a predecessor of the TUC, it was Owen who presided at the first meeting of that short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

Incidentally it was not just the great and the good, the Establishment of his own time, who cold-shouldered Owen for his ‘communism’ and his hostility to religious dogma. More modern pseudo-socialists – historians of the ‘left’ – are just as bad.

For instance, if one looks up the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in the index of Cole and Postgate’s book THE COMMON PEOPLE – a book which carefully avoids any mention of our party – there is no mention of it. Likewise if you look in Henry Pelling’s A HISTORY OF BRITISH TRADE UNIONISM, in a fairly detailed account of the ‘Grand National’, there is no mention at all of Owen’s involvement. But on a later page, just after a passage dealing with the Tolpuddle martyrs, Pelling inserted this: “Owen, who had not previously been a member of the ‘Grand National’, after the Dorchester trial accepted the office of president” (p 42). This wording suggests to the reader that Owen had not campaigned on behalf of the workers but had somehow contrived to be offered the title of president, and possibly had intrigued or wangled to make sure he would be offered the post. As Pelling’s first book had been on THE ORIGINS OF THE LABOUR PARTY, he may well have supposed that anyone involved with the trade unions would probably be a careerist - even Owen.

But Owen had nothing at all to gain from being involved in trade unionism. Also, he was no careerist: he was in fact financially ruined by his campaigning, and in later years was supported loyally by his sons, who contrived to deceive him into thinking he still had an income, one which they supplied him without his knowledge.

In spite of Engels, we may have our doubts about regarding Owen as being of the same significance in the development of Socialist thinking as St Simon and Fourier. Owen got himself involved in setting up cooperative societies, also labour bazaars using labour-notes as currency - long before Proudhon dreamed up his bank of exchange. Such schemes were doomed to failure.

So was Engels right in admiring Owen? Maybe, if only because Owen was bold enough to identify where surplus wealth and profits came from: not from the machines but from the workers, i.e. not from Capital but from Labour. Against this, surely Marx and Engels – and others - were quite able to discover the source of surplus value without the help or influence of Robert Owen.

Also, Owen’s belief in the plastic, malleable and adaptable character of human nature was not unique to him. Fourier too held that, in the right circumstances, people could become sociable and cooperative.

But one should still give Robert Owen a huge amount of credit for the fact that, in spite of his social position as the manager of a large industrial firm, as an employer and a successful businessman, he never abandoned his efforts and campaigning to make life better for the workers - not just his own employees and their families, but for all the working class.

Engels was right to group Owen together with St Simon and Fourier. All these ‘Utopian Socialists’ had this in common: they campaigned by appealing to the Establishment figures of their time, to people in positions of power and influence. In doing so, this showed that they could not yet see in the working class any potential for revolutionary organisation and action. The three were all men of the same generation, influenced by 18th century thinking. Above all, they were men whose thinking could not be expected to anticipate the potential development of the still emerging working class, a class which would become capable of playing a revolutionary role and, by overthrowing capitalism, making history.

In short, as Engels argued, they were men who were ahead of their time: in their perceptive understanding of capitalism they put forward important ideas which influenced Marx and Engels, and so helped them develop their revolutionary theory. The influence of some of their ideas has lasted down the generations, and so it would be a mistake for us simply to write them off as ‘mere’ Utopians. Like Marx and Engels, Socialists today owe these early pioneers a debt and the recognition that our thinking and arguments have also been influenced by them.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |