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Marx and Engels: Scientific Socialism

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Science and materialism

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) are the creators of what they called "scientific socialism". As you are reading this document try to work out what they thought made their theories scientific, and whether you agree with them.

It seems to me that they thought their theory was scientific because of its content, because of the kind of theory it is. This is what they focus on, rather than issues such as empirical method.

One feature Marx and Engels stressed was that their theory was materialist, not religious, or idealist. Because they tried to explain history by looking at the material conditions of human existence their theory is called: historical materialism.

The religious views of history they criticised were the Jewish and Christian accounts found in the Bible. In the mid 19th century many people saw science as the opponent of religion.

The idealism they criticised was mainly Hegel's philosophy of history. Hegel argued that history is not meaningless chance, but a rational process - spirit or mind making itself real in history. Marx and Engels thought the material world determines our ideas rather than our ideas determining the material world.

To explore what this means, read the extracts from Hegel that illustrate his idealist view of history and compare them to the summary of historical materialism.

Historical materialism was not the only materialist theory developed in the 19th century. The other major one was Darwin's theory of evolution. Marx and Engels thought of their theory as complementary to evolutionary theory.

Alienation and class struggle

Marx and Engels wrote about an enormous range of subjects including religion, politics, history, housing, economics, marriage, philosophy, sex and law. Some people argue that the key to all their writings is the idea of "alienation".

Alienation is separation from what we really are. According to Marx and Engels the social system makes us aliens or strangers to ourselves. They thought people are stopped from being truly human by the stunting effect of a corrupt social system. The present system is called capitalism or the bourgeois order. Like previous systems, it distorts our true being, but our full humanity will flourish in the communist future.

Some marxists, notably the followers of Louis Althusser, say that Marx only thought like this in the first part of his life. Others, the Hegelian marxists or humanists, say this kind of thinking runs through all his work.

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx wrote about "estranged labour". This is labour that has been made a stranger to the labourer, he or she is no longer related to it. S/he is alienated from it.

To be human, according to Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1846) is to be a creative worker. This is the humanity we have been alienated from. The alienation took place very early in human history and was associated with the emergence of economic and social classes. When early societies produced more than they needed to exist on, the surplus was set apart for special communal purposes such as investment, defence or religion. The groups that took charge of this surplus became the ruling class and, since then:

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." (The Communist Manifesto par.1.1).

Look at the chart summarising historical materialism as Engels saw it in one of his last books (1884). It shows how the economy, family structure and government are believed to be inter-related. In the final analysis, the economy is believed to be decisive in determining what happens in history.

Different periods of economic history have different classes. In Europe the great "epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society" were "the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois [capitalist] methods of production" (Marx 1859)

Under capitalism there are many classes, but according to the The Communist Manifesto, they are polarizing into two: the proletariate (or working class) and the bourgeoisie (or capitalists). The proletariate are the class that own nothing but their labour power, the capitalists are the class who own the means of production.

The proletariat are the first class in history that can free everyone from alienation. They have no one beneath them to exploit so the only path they can take to freedom is to set up a classless society in which no one is exploited. This, they thought, would happen after a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and after an in-between period called the "dictatorship of the proletariate".

Engels and Marx in the 1840s

The "hungry forties", when a large part of the Irish peasantry starved to death and the condition of the English workers was also miserable, had a strong effect on the ideas about society of people of many different political persuasions.

In 1848 two separate publications sought to provide a theoretical and scientific explanation of class:

One was the first edition of Principles of Political Economy - With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy by John Stuart Mill, which included an article on On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes originally drafted by Mill's colleague Harriet Taylor.

The other was The Communist Manifesto, the first drafts of which were written by Friedrich Engels, and the final version written by his colleague Karl Marx.

In the 1840s, Engels and Marx concluded independently that the social order they were living in was doomed.

They were both German scholars who lived most of their lives in England. Marx came here as a political refugee in 1849, but Engels arrived in 1842

"at almost the worst period of.. the most catastrophic economic slump of the 19th century.." (Hobsbawm 1969 p.14)

Engels was the son of a leading Prussian cotton manufacturer. Having served for a year as an officer in the Guards, his father sent him to work in the office of Erman and Engels in Manchester. On the way Engels and Marx met briefly for the first time - but did not like one another.

Manchester. A hundred years ago, Engels wrote, the country around Manchester was chiefly swamp, now it is

"the most densely populated strip of country in England" (Engels 1845 p.75).

Something very dramatic was happening here - for Manchester was the centre of the world's first industrial revolution.

Intellectually and in person, Engels began to explore what was going on. He found that Manchester was the centre of something else. It was:

"the seat of the most powerful Unions, the central point of Chartism, the place which numbers most socialists. The more the factory system has taken possession of a branch of industry, the more the working men employed in it participate in the labour movement." (Engels 1845 p.266).

In the meantime, Marx was having a hard time in his first job. From 1842 to 1843 he was editor of a radical Rhineland newspaper called the Rheinische Zeitung.

"I found myself embarrassed at first when I had to take part in discussions concerning so-called material interests" (Marx 1859)

His education had been in law, philosophy and history, especially Hegel's view of them, but to write about the issues of the day he found he needed economics.

Another problem was socialism. Marx was editing articles about French socialism and communism but

"had to admit at once...that my previous studies did not allow me to hazard an independent judgement as to the merits of the French schools." (Marx 1859)

In 1844 Marx lost his job as an editor and went to Paris to edit a journal and study economics and socialism. It was from his study of French politics and socialism that Marx reached the conclusion that the bourgeois order was doomed. Engels was to show him that he could reach the same conclusion from political economy and from what was happening to the English working class.

In Paris Marx received an article from Engels that he described as a work of genius. It was called Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy. Engels and Marx met again in Paris in September 1844 They talked for several days, and it is here that their life long friendship and collaboration dates from.

In Manchester Engels had gathered the materials for a book The Conditions of the Working Class in England, which he wrote after his return to Germany and published, in German, in 1845. The book begins with a description of the industrial revolution in Britain. (Despite the title it discusses Ireland and Scotland as well as England.) This revolution, he says, has brought into being a new class of people: the industrial workers or proletariat. (Engels 1845 p.37)

Industrialization, he says, was the result of competition. This force, identified by Adam Smith as the root cause of economic growth, was creating wealth for the rich, but, Engels argued, it was making the lives of the working classes a misery. Competition had destroyed the independent producers in the countryside and had driven them into the towns to seek work. Here they lived in insanitary conditions and were prey to appalling diseases. They worked long hours in factories using dangerous machinery. Their children received no worthwhile education, and when they were unemployed, sick or too old to work their only recourse was the Malthusian Poor Law. (Engels 1845 p.108-120)

But, because they were brought together there was the possibility of collective action. The workers came into contact with Owenite socialist and Chartist ideas and waves of revolutionary activity were sweeping the country. (Engels 1845 pp 239-266)

In 1842, the year that Engels arrived, English workers, striking for the Charter, roamed the Midlands and North of England setting light to rich men's houses and pulling out the plugs of factory boilers.

Capitalism, Engels argued, was subject to periodic crises, and one of these would be the occasion for the working class wresting power from the capitalists and establishing a communist society.

"The wrath of the whole working class.. against the rich, by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate...before too long a time goes by.. must break out into a Revolution in comparison with which the French revolution.. will prove to have been child's play". (Engels 1845 p.53)

This revolution would not be "mindless", however. The English workers had set up a network of institutes and established their own newspapers for their own education.

"And in how great a measure the English proletariat has succeeded in attaining independent education" Engels says "is shown especially by the fact that the epoch-making products of modern philosophical, political and poetical literature are read by working men almost exclusively" (Engels 1845 p.265)

One of the examples he gives refers to the work of Benthamite socialists like Thompson and Wheeler

"The two great practical philosophers of latest date, Bentham and Godwin, are.. almost exclusively the property of the proletariat; for though Bentham has a school with the Radical bourgeoisie, it is only the proletariat and the Socialists who have succeeded in developing his teachings a step forward." (Engels 1845 p.266)

It was only a short step from this conclusion to a belief that, in the imminent course of industrial history, the proletariat would adopt communism. Marx had arrived independently at the same conclusion. Engels and Marx believed passionately that scientific theory could transform the world if it was linked to the struggles of the working class. This was part of their theory that (according to Engels) Marx was the first to develop.

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it."

Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach. (Marx, March 1845, point 11).

In The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels described communism as a "spectre haunting Europe".

They linked together the widespread popular disturbances of the late 1840s with the idea that the seizure of political power by the workers would lead to the replacement of competitive capitalism by collective ownership and cooperation.

This revolutionary overthrow of capitalism did not take place in the middle of the 19th century as Marx and Engels had anticipated. In fact, in France, a dictator (Napoleon 3rd) was elected by the people in a popular election! Disappointed, but not defeated, Marx turned his attention to the economic analysis of the foundations of capitalism, and out of this developed his monumental work: Das Kapital (Capital).

Marx's economics

Economics for Marx and Engels was not just economics: it was the explanation for everything.

In the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) Marx explained how in the late 1840s he reached a "general conclusion" which "once reached, continued to serve as the leading thread in my studies". This is how he describes his conclusion:

"In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production."

"The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society - the real foundations, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness." Marx 1859

In diagrammatic form, he is arguing that society can be divided into an economic base and a superstructure.


The superstructure consists of everything else apart from the economy (he mentions law, the state and human consciousness).

It is the economic base that determines what the superstructure will be. So whatever you are studying: sociology, psychology, law, social policy, urban studies, geography, social work, the family, music, religion, history, politics, sex or pop music, you should, according to Marx, start with economics.

Economics, for Marx, is about human relations. In particular it is about class relations. Class relations, for Marx, are economic relations. So another way of saying that the economic base determines the superstructure is to say that

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles"

Which is what Marx and Engels said in The Communist Manifesto. This was the Marx-Engels research programme: To reconstruct all past and existing ideas (history, politics, religion, family and sexual codes and everything else) as expressions of the material base of society.

The prospect is mind-boggling. But not only did they set out to do it: but they also took it on as a part-time activity! Marx spent most of his academic effort trying to get the economics right (writing Capital), whilst Engels was busy earning the money to keep the Marx family alive. In their different ways they both concentrated on the economic base. Research into how the base determined the superstructure was largely left to later generations of Marxists to develop.

According to Marx the three major differences between his analysis, and that of Adam Smith, Ricardo and the other economists were:

1. That Marx treats surplus value as having a general character: it is extracted in different ways at different periods of history. Rent and capital are ways of extracting surplus value that belong to capitalism. They do not exist for all time.

2. That "the economists, without exception have missed the simple point that if the commodity has a double character - use value and exchange value - then the labour represented by the commodity must also have a two-fold character."

3 "That for the first time wages are shown to be the irrational form in which a relation hidden behind them appears"

(Marx and Engels/Selected Correspondence. 8.1.1868)

Lets us start at point three and work backwards. Marx says the economic system described by Adam Smith appears to be fair - but isn't. Ordinary issues like buying and selling commodities and being paid a wage are superficial appearances that hide (mask) reality. (Marx 1867 pp 71-84)

Labour is just as much a commodity as Omo or Daz. Under capitalism people buy and sell it. In fact that is part of the Marx's definition of capitalism: Capitalism is the mode of production under which capitalists own the means of production and the workers sell them their labour power. (See Marx 1867 pp 167-169)

But here is a problem. Smith, Ricardo and Marx all say that the value of a commodity is determined by how much labour is put into it. So if the capitalist pays the worker the value of the worker's labour, and if the capitalist sells the product for the same value - where is the profit?

To make a profit the:

value the worker is paid has to be less than the:
value of the product

The extra bit is profit, or "surplus value"

But if, according to the labour theory of value, the value of the product is the value of the labour put into it, where does the "extra bit" come from. Is it trickery? Is the labourer paid less than her labour is worth? Or is the consumer charged more than the product is worth? No, Marx says. It is the way that surplus product is extracted under capitalism. The extraction of surplus product is exploitation, but it is not trickery, just an illusion of fair exchange created by the market economy.

To see what is happening we have to go back to the distinction between use value and exchange value that Adam Smith makes. Water and diamonds have use values and exchange values, so does human labour. It is because they are different that the capitalist gets a surplus from the exchange, Marx says.

The exchange value of human labour can be worked out in the same way as the exchange value of any other commodity: it is the labour that it takes to produce. So it's the labour needed to rear, feed, clothe, educate, house and keep a worker in working order. It's her cost of subsistence. Capitalists have to pay this, Marx points out, or there would be no workers. Sometimes they try to economize by overusing the worker so that her health declines or her children are not properly cared for: but this is a short term economy and the sensible Government's stop capitalists doing this (Marx 1867 pp 238-239). This still leaves a surplus.

The worker's use value is greater than her exchange value: She can produce more than it takes to maintain her. The consumer pays for the labour value of what the worker produces, not just the cost of producing her. It is this extra bit - the difference between the labour it takes to produce a worker and the labour the worker puts into production - that provides the capitalist's surplus value. (Marx 1867 ch.7)

Under feudalism surplus value was extracted in clear, open manner: serfs were forced to work on their lord's land, for example. Under capitalism the illusion is created that surplus is no longer extracted: that everyone is paid the price for what they have to sell. But Marx believed he had shown that it was just extracted in a different manner.

All class societies involve exploitation: the extraction of surplus from labourers to supply the wants of a ruling class. But Marx did not believe society has to be class society. A classless society is not only possible - history is actually heading that way. The reason (as with all reasons for historical materialism) is economic.

Marx argued that revolutionary changes in society take place because the "forces of production" come into conflict with the "relations of production".

"At a certain stage of their development the mutual forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but a legal expression for the same thing - with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into fetters. Than comes the period of social revolution." Marx 1859


Easton, L. and Guddat, K, 1967 Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society

Engels 1844. Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy. First published February 1844. English translation in Struik, D. 1970 pp 197-226

Engels 1845 (English translation 1892, Panther edition 1969) The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Engels 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. [321.12 ENG]

Firestone, Shulamith, 1971 The Dialectic of Sex [305.42 FIR]

Hegel/History. The Philosophy of History [901. HEG] Based on lectures given first in 1822-1823.

Hobsbawm, E.J. 1969 Introduction to Engels 1845 (Panther edition 1969)

Jackson, T.A. 1935 A Great Socialist-Frederick Engels. National Council of Labour Colleges pamphlet.

Marx, March 1845 Theses on Feuerbach. First published in 1888. Easton and Guddat pp 400-402.

Marx and Engels 1846 The German Ideology

Marx and Engels 1848 The Communist Manifesto.

Marx 1859 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (preface to)

Marx 1867 Capital. Vol.1. See pp 71-84: ch.1, s.4, The Fetishism of Commodities; pp 167-176 ch.6 The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power; pp 177-198 ch.7 The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus Value; pp 231-302 ch.10 The Working Day.

Marx and Engels/Selected Correspondence, Letter from Marx to Engels, 8.1.1868

Rex, J. 1967 "Frederick Engels" New Society 5.1.1967 pp 14-16 Founding Fathers of Social Science (New Series) 6.

Struik, D. J. (Editor) 1970 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, by Karl Marx.

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Alienation and class struggle

Engels and Marx in the 1840s

Hegel's idealism

Marx's economics

Science and Materialism

Summary of historical materialism

Summary of the lives of Marx and Engels