How socialism became a science

From its very beginning, capitalism has always created resistance in those it exploits and oppresses. Well before capitalism had overrun the rest of the world, in Western Europe, where it originated, it was engendering opposition, at times quite fierce: sabotage of capitalist property, illegal workers’ associations, local rebellions. These indications that something was wrong led thoughtful people to seek solutions to the social evils they saw around them such the increasing dispossession of peasants, mass unemployment and petty crime.

The most thoughtful were able to perceive that these social problems had a common origin in the new social (economic) arrangements that were becoming dominant in Britain and other Western European countries with the rise of capitalism. Hence they developed schemes, often quite elaborate, for altering those arrangements. Some were even put into practice as models.

Perhaps the most notable of these was the cotton mill managed for three decades from 1800 by Robert Owen in New Lanark, Scotland, which became (in the words of Frederick Engels) “a model colony, in which drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, charity, were unknown”, while still producing substantial profits for its owners.

The inventors of these schemes were usually described as “utopian socialists” (derived from the title of the early 16th century book by Sir Thomas More describing the fictional island Utopia, possessing an egalitarian classless society of artisan-farmers). They generally expected, or at least hoped, that the ‘enlightened” rulers and the educated public would recognise the reasonableness of their proposals and therefore legislate or fund their implementation, and they were surprised and disappointed when this didn’t happen. The reason they failed was worked out by two German revolutionaries, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who established socialism as a science — a coherent body of knowledge describing the laws governing the development of a particular material system.

How society changes

Marx and Engels realised that societies change, not because of the good or bad ideas that thinkers come up with, but as a result of changes in the way they produce all the things they need in order to survive. Social arrangements, whether legitimised by tradition, religion or law, necessarily correspond to the way social life is produced.

But as methods of production gradually change, earlier social arrangements become less and less suitable to the underlying production methods. The growingcontradiction between the social order and the forces of production is what gives rise to the perception that social institutions are irrational or unjust and must be changed.

The understanding that society evolves under the impact of its interaction with the natural environment through production is known as historical materialism. This understanding was a prerequisite for converting socialism from a vague hope into a science. The second necessary element, Engels later wrote, was Marx’s discovery of the laws of surplus value — the fundamental mechanism by which capitalism exploits the working class, by paying workers less than the value that they add to their product.

These two discoveries of course only provided the basis for the science. “The next thing”, as Engels wrote, “was to work out all its details and relations”. Among other matters, this involved Marx’s monumental investigation of the laws that govern the operations of capitalist economy. This development of the science, which of course involved as well a careful attention to the actual course of political developments in capitalist countries, led to a further fundamental law of scientific socialism.

Social classes

The utopian socialists who preceded Marx and Engels developed their ideas at a time when the capitalist mode of production had only begun to develop and the class contradictions it creates were underdeveloped. This was a basic reason that the utopian socialists were unable to conceive of a way of realising their socialist goals other than appealing to the good will of “enlightened” rulers and wealthy property owners repulsed by the social evils generated by capitalism.

For Marx and Engels, their economic and political researches made it clear that the social problems created by capitalism could only be overcome, as they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, by “rais[ing] the proletariat to the position of ruling class”, from which position it would be able to begin to reorganise social arrangements to effect the transition to socialism.

This is because it is the working class, which is created by and indispensable to capitalism, that is also the social class that has the social power and the material interest to overthrow it and replace it with socialism. And it is also why Marx and Engels themselves spent such a great part of their lives seeking to build the revolutionary working-class parties and other labour movement organisations that would be needed by the proletariat to carry out its historic task.