By Frederick Engels
This slim book is based on the last chapter of Engels' tendentious Anti-Duehring, in which Engels replied to German philosopher Eugen Karl Dühring's arguments against Marxism. Engels wrote Anti-Duehring after Marx's death, and in the foreword of the second edition of that book, stated that he hadn't spent much time revising because his work of editing Marx's remaining writings was much more important. But Anti-Duehring turned out to be exceedingly important later, since it laid the foundation for Marxism's claims to being broadly applicable to science. Engels later developed this argument in Dialectics of Nature, a book that, although never completed, had an enormous impact on the young USSR when it was published in Russian in the early 1930s.
Anti-Duehring was specifically focused on criticizing Duehring's argument, and it was quite polemic. Imagine an angry, sarcastic, and frequently ad hominem attack in the comment section of a contentious blog post and you'll come close to it. But the last chapter was less tethered to this author-centered polemic and more focused on applying dialectics to science. That chapter forms the basis for Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which (in this version) takes but 44 pages (not including the 31-page translator's introduction and the second essay included, "The Mark").
In this slim volume, Engels argues that although the German reformation, the English revolution, and the French revolution all appealed to reason and went some way toward socialism, "not one of them appears as a representative of the interests of the proletariat"; they claim to emancipate "all humanity at once"; and "they wish to bring in the kingdom of reason and eternal justice, but this kingdom, as they see it, is as far from heaven from earth from that of the French philosophers" (p.33). And
What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chain of historical development, but a mere happy accident. He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering. (p.34)Engels goes on to criticize the results of these revolutions for appealing to reason, then yielding irrational and unjust results (pp.34-35). But he also criticizes previous efforts of socialism, which sometimes took Hegelian dialectics as a basis, and which were thus grounded in the ideal. "To make a science of socialism," he concludes, "it had first to be placed upon a real basis" (p.44).
Thus ends the first section. In the second section, Engels briefly traces the history of dialectics from the Greeks to Hegel. Materialist dialectics, the highest development, provides advantages beyond the previous versions:
Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin, and ending. Such processes as those mentioned above are, therefore, so many corroborations of its own method of procedure.
Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern science that it has furnished this proof with very rich materials increasing daily, and thus has shown that, in the last resort, Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically; that she does not move in the eternal oneness of a perpetually recurring circle, but goes through a real historical evolution. In this connection Darwin must be named before all others. He dealt the metaphysical conception of Nature the heaviest blow by his proof that all organic beings, plants, animals, and man himself, are the products of a process of evolution going on through millions of years. But the naturalists who have learned to think dialectically are few and far between, and this conflict of the results of discovery with preconceived modes of thinking explains the endless confusion now reigning in theoretical natural science, the despair of teachers as well as learners, of authors and readers alike.
An exact representation of the universe, of its evolution, of the development of mankind, and of the reflection of this evolution in the minds of men, can therefore only be obtained by the methods of dialectics. (p.48, my emphasis)Notice that here, Engels takes dialectical materialism beyond Marx's application as an analytical method and turns it into the logic of nature itself. That is, no longer is dialectics merely a way of understanding and predicting how feudalism leads to capitalism and from there to socialism. Now it's the way to truly apprehend "a exact representation of the universe." Indeed, later in this book Engels adds that "active social forces work exactly like natural forces" (p.68). Engels revisits this expanded understanding of dialectics in Dialectics of Nature; you can imagine—as I alluded earlier—how attractive this idea was to the Soviets, who could not only characterize themselves as on the right side of history, but also as having the opportunity to create a fundamental understanding of the universe.
The Hegelian system, Engels argues, although "a colossal miscarriage," was "also the last of its kind" (p.50). Once idealism was jettisoned,
The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that 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; that the economic structure of society always furnishes 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. Hegel had freed history from metaphysics—he had made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining man's "knowing" by his "being," instead of, as heretofore, his "being" by his "knowing."
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. Its task was 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 had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict. (pp.51-52)With Marx's two discoveries—"the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value"—"socialism became a science" and all that's left is to work out the details (p.53).
Here, Engels begins the third section, in which he discusses the contradiction between socialized production and capitalistic appropriation (p.58). This contradiction is manifested as antagonism between bourgeouisie and proletariat (p.59). And
The capitalistic mode of production moves in these two forms of the antagonism immanent to it from its very origin. It is never able to get out of that "vicious circle," which Fourier had already discovered. What Fourier could not, indeed, see in his time is, that this circle is gradually narrowing; that the movement becomes more and more a spiral, and must come to an end, like the movement of the planets, by collision with the center. It is the compelling force of anarchy in the production of society at large that more and more completely turns the great majority of men into proletarians; and it is the masses of the proletariat again who will finally put an end to anarchy in production. It is the compelling force of anarchy in social production that turns the limitless perfectibility of machinery under modern industry into a compulsory law by which every individual industrial capitalist must perfect his machinery more and more, under penalty of ruin. (pp.59-60; compare Schumpeter's argument addressing this point).Engels adds that the overwork of some leads to the idleness of others (p.62). (It's worth noting here that Engels argues in Dialectics of Nature that human society and morality comes from work; by implication the idleness of capitalists is seen as fundamentally immoral and perhaps inhuman.) He quotes Marx's Capital about how the accumulation of wealth at one pole involves accumulating misery at the other pole, and adds, "And to expect any other division of the products from the capitalistic mode of production is the same as expecting the electrodes of a battery not to decompose acidulated water, not to liberate oxygen at the positive, hydrogen at the negative pole, so long as they are connected with the battery" (p.63).
In sum, Engels concludes:
Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master—free.
To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat. (p.75)And again, in this summary, we see how Engels uses his understanding of dialectics to lay down laws that apply to society and economics, but also to Nature itself. It's a heady argument, one that establishes dialectics as a Theory of Everything. In upcoming book readings, I'll discuss how this understanding of dialectics affected the troika of young Soviet psychologists (Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and Luria) who would go on to develop activity theory.