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Distinction between 'Scientific' and 'Utopian' socialism

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To what extent, if any, is the Marxist distinction between 'scientific' and 'utopian' socialism justified?

This essay will return to the writings of Marx to assess to what extent he drew a distinction between “scientific” and “utopian” socialism. The essay will construct a reading of Marx that suggests he did not draw a distinction between scientific socialism and utopian socialism. Marx and Engels adopted a scientific methodology and thus, they did not believe that a socialist/communist society is utopian. However, the scientific method objected to elements of utopian socialism, which assumed “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” (Engels, on-line). In contrast, Marxists base their socialism on a dialectical process, where a socialist/communist society is the natural culmination of the historical process. The dialectical process, Engels argues, is scientific: “Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern science that it has furnished this proof with very rich materials increasingly daily” (Engels, on-line). Thus, Marxists view history as a universal, teleological and pre-destined process, where history is the process by which “the spectre of communism” is made actual.

To understand Marx’s theory of history, and why he did not see a socialist/communist future as utopian but the culmination of a scientific process, it is important to elucidate Marx’s philosophy of science. The most important aspect of Marx’s philosophy of science for the purpose of this essay is to realise that “Marx thought that the human sciences and the natural sciences are governed by essentially the same methods” (Miller, 2000, p. 532). This means that the human sciences are predictable, measurable and observable in the same way as the natural sciences. However, in contrast, to traditional empiricists, Marx did not base prediction on clearly observable phenomenon; instead, he sought prediction by locating underlying causal structures (Miller, 2000, p. 532). This understanding of the human sciences and natural sciences led Marx to produce a theory of historical determinism, based on a dialectical historical materialism that constructed a communist society as both a scientific and utopian future.

Marx’s theory of history is derived from Hegel since he employs Hegel’s notion of history as a dialectical process. Goodwin argues that “Marx used the dialectical less technically and less insistently than Hegel, but [the dialectical] forms the basis of his conception of capitalism as ‘contradictory’ and ridden with class conflict” (Goodwin, 1997, p. 68). Therefore, the Hegelian influence on Marx cannot be overstated. However, as Hampsher-Monk notes there were two Hegelian outlooks at the time Marx was writing. One was conservative and attempted to show that the social/political status quo was rational and the historical process had been achieved; or, as Marx put it, it attempted to “turn philosophy inward” (Hampsher-Monk, 1992, p. 484). The second Hegelian outlook aimed to “turn philosophy outward” – that is to make what is currently an imperfect and irrational social reality conform to rationality (Hampsher-Monk, 1992, p. 484). Employing a dialectical understanding of history, Marx argued that capitalism possessed contradictions, and history was a process that would turn this irrational society into a rational society. Marx argued that a communist society would resolve contradiction and thus the dialectical produces a pre-determined historical future in a communist society.

Thus far, this essay has set out the dialectical process of history upon which Marx’s philosophy rests. It will now, explore the historical materialism that Marx argues drives the dialectical process. By marrying together a theory of historical materialism and dialectical determinism, it is possible to see how Marx understands how history would unfold, scientifically, into a communist society.

Marx takes a scientific study of history and society, but rather than basing his conclusions on empirical and measurable findings, he premises his theory of history on causal structures. For Marx, “every form of society has been based… on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes” (Marx and Engels, 1985, p. 93). This theory of history links up to the Hegelian idea of a dialectical process that resolves contradiction by making the rational actual. First, though, this essay will sketch out Marx’s analysis of history up to the point he was writing, and how historical materialism had proceeded through various stages in world history.

Marx constructs a history that is a narrative based on a structure, rather than a series of random events. For Marx, class is the structure upon which the narrative of history rests, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels, 1985, p. 79). Marx argues that in previous stages of history, class was a complicated arrangement, but as the feudal system gave way to the capitalist system, the antagonism of the class system simplified. The capitalist system, for Marx, had led to society “splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx and Engels, 1985, p. 80). The Communist Manifesto, as Hampsher-Monk illustrates, is an “account of economic-historical development” (Hampsher-Monk, 1992, p. 515) which argues that revolutionary politics is necessary to complete the process..

According to Goodwin, Marx saw economic and technical innovation as the originator of all historical change, with the most recent example being the replacing of a feudal society with a capitalist society (Goodwin, 1997, p. 76). Marx’s theory is undoubtedly economic, with Hampsher-Monk arguing that Marx drew an analogy between economics and religion, where money was seen as a ‘jealous god’ (Hampsher-Monk, 1992, p. 496). This prioritising of money and economics explains why it is economic relations that are the base structure in Marx’s philosophy. Thus, when economic relations change, it “entails a transformation of the socio-political superstructure” (Goodwin, 1997, p. 76). In essence, historical materialism is the idea that economics constitutes the base structure of society, and a transformation in the economic structure is a part of the dialectical process of history, where contradictions in economic and social relations clash, and a new society emerges.

For the purposes of this paper, the most important point to draw out is that both historical materialism and the historical determinism of the dialectical process of history constitute a scientific theory in Marx’s philosophy. Marx argues that a socialist-communist society is not utopian, but part of the revolutionary process of the dialectical. It is now necessary to outline the “scientific” process by which capitalist society would collapse under its own contradictions, and be replaced by a socialist-communist society.

For Marx, the dialectical process behind history saw the bourgeois/capitalist system as the “last major stage before a fundamentally new political and economic order” (Held, 1996, p. 126). Marx’s scientific theory of history saw the capitalist order as, ultimately, succumbing to the socialist-communist order. Marx details how this would come about, and to understand this it is necessary to once again return to the idea of the dialectical process and contradictions. Held summarises Marx’s theory of the inevitability of revolutionary politics, by arguing that for Marx, capitalism was not a harmonious social order and the foundations of capitalism are undermined from within (Held, 1996, pp. 126-129). Thus, Marx argues that capitalism is undermined because of its contradictions, and the dialectical process requires the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Marx’s theory of contradiction within capitalism is based on his assertion of historical materialism, and his notion of exploitation. Marx argues that history has always been a struggle between oppressed and oppressor; thus, if it possible to observe exploitation, an oppressor and an oppressed class within capitalism, then it follows that history has not resolved the dialectical process. Marx argues that capitalism does possess such a contradiction, since “property… is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour” (Marx and Engels, 1985, p. 97). Marx is, essentially, taking an objective, scientific look at the social-economic structure, arguing that it has not resolved class antagonism and therefore, the dialectical process is incomplete. Thus, for Marx, a socialist-communist revolution is not utopian, but a scientific ‘working-out’ of contradiction.

To conclude Marx’s theory of history, it is necessary to now look at how he saw revolutionary politics overturning the capitalist order, and how he thought a socialist-communist economic and social order would resolve the contradictions inherent in the capitalist order in order to produce a rational solution to the dialectical process. For Marx, revolution was inevitable, because revolution was the result of an antagonistic polarisation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The worsening conditions of the proletariat would automatically propel them into a revolutionary mind-set and into war with the bourgeoisie/capitalist class. This would lead to the proletariat revolution, which would wrestle power from one class to another. However, this final stage would require two phases. Firstly, revolution would lead to the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, and then the second phase would lead to “Proper Communism”. Taylor picks up on the homogenising and authoritarian streak in Marx’s communist vision. He wryly observes that Marx is claiming that he and The Communists were the ones who understood what was happening in the world, and when The Communists say they have no interests apart from those of the proletariat, they are assuming that “the proletariat would agree to have only the interests which Marx said it ought to have” (Taylor, 1985, p. 31). Marx concludes that the antagonism within the capitalist order is the result of the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the capital of the proletariat; and, thus, the key to “The Communist programme was the abolition of private property” (Taylor, 1985, p. 31). This is critical to understanding that, for Marx, a socialist-communist society is not so much a Utopia, as a ‘working–out’ of the dialectical process. Marx’s scientific method to history rests on the notion that private property constitutes a contradiction within the capitalist order, and that the dialectical process will result in revolution to overthrow the capitalist order; therefore, a communist society is a scientific resolution necessity, rather than being a utopian ideal.

Goodwin argues that Marx was “reluctant to offer any detailed picture of the communist utopia” (Goodwin, 1997, p.81). However, Marx had identified the contradiction within capitalism that would lead to its overthrow, namely the antagonism between capitalists and workers and the exploitation that lay at the heart of this. Therefore, the implication of Marx’s thought is that a socialist-communist utopia would find a means to eradicate class exploitation. As Goodwin says, Marx may not have laid down a “blueprint”, but “the formal characteristics of communist society are made clear in his works, as are the particular principles on which it would operate” (Goodwin, 1997, p.81). As indicated earlier, Marx argued that all history was the history of class struggles; therefore, a socialist-communist society would be classless. By eliminating the antagonisms of class, the contradictions of capitalism would be resolved, and the dialectical process of history would be rationally worked through.

The elimination of class rests on the elimination of the capitalist means of production. Thus, “communism connotes the abolition of private property” (Goodwin, 1997, p.81). The “utopia” of communism-socialism is a classless society that has abolished private property. However, because of the historical materialism and dialectical process that underpins Marx’s theory, the communist “utopia” is also a scientific resolution to the contradictions within capitalism. It is the contradictions Engels within capitalism that will lead the dialectical process of history to produce a revolution that will usher in communism.

Taylor puts this succinctly “dialectical materialism would compel men to live in Utopia whatever the promptings of their heart” (Taylor, 1985, p. 10). Despite arguing that Marx saw a socialist-communist society as the inevitable result of a scientific process, it should not be underestimated how revolutionary his vision was. Marx was a revolutionary thinker, and he was calling for an overturning of the capitalist system. This was not utopian, as it was not the dreams of a “good place”, a utopia. Instead, Marx saw a socialist-communist society, based on the abolition of private property, as the rational solution to the dialectical process of history. His work is polemical, and he does not conceal the radical and revolutionary aspects of his political thought. He argues that The Communists “openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible and overthrow of all existing social conditions” (Marx and Engels, 1985, p. 120). He goes on to say that “the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution” (Marx and Engels, 1985, p. 120). Given that Marx is unequivocally envisaging the ordering of an entirely different economic, social and political structure, his vision has a utopian element. However, Marx, himself, denied that his vision was utopian. Instead, he saw a communist society, as the scientifically determined and rational culmination of the dialectical. Engels argued that utopian socialists did not look to history and science: “not one of them appears as a representative of the interests of that proletariat which historical development had, in the meantime, produced” (Engels, on-line). However, the drawing of this distinction has limited value, since the scientific method is designed to construct a dialectical logic that argues that the socialist-communist “utopia” is something that must be realized.


Engels, Friedrich. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Retrieved March 6, 2015, from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/index.htm

Goodwin, Barbara (1997) Using Political Ideas (4th edition), John Wiley & Sons, Chichester pp. 65 – 97.

Hampsher-Monk, (1992). “Karl Marx” in A history of modern political thought: Major political thinkers from Hobbes to Marx, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford pp. 483 - 563.

Held, David (1996) Models of Democracy (2nd edition), Polity Press, Cambridge pp. 121 – 154.

Marx, Karl, & Engels, Friedrich (1985) The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, London.

Miller, Richard W. (2000) “Marxist Philosophy of Science” in Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London p. 532.

Taylor, A. J. P. (1985) “Introduction” in The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, London pp. 7 – 47.

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