Tag Archives: communism

Book Review: Socialism – Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engels

This is the third and final work in a single volume which also contains The Communist Manifesto and The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. This work was written much later in Engels’ life, and as such represents his more mature view, having noted that his contribution to the earlier two works took place when he still relatively young.

One might be hard pressed to call it a book in its own right, as it is more of an extended pamphlet, running to a little under 70 pages long; even then the introduction takes up over a third of its entire length! For the sake of familiarity, I will choose to continue to call it a book.

So what of its content?

The lengthy introduction is largely about materialism. Specifically, it is a statement of materialism’s superiority as an idea than anything that any religion has produced. It is not an argument as such, as there is no real reasoning put forward other than an appeal to a few named philosophers (including Hobbes and Hegel). If we put that aside for a bit and look at the points Engels is trying to make, it becomes clear that his idea of religion is little matured from when he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto. It remains a caricature of (predominantly) christian belief that is asserted, but not evidenced.

Getting onto the main substance of the book, Engels looks at what he refers to as Utopian Socialism. In particular he looks at the style of socialism advocated by Robert Owen, whose influence upon socialism, communism, the early labour movements and the trade unions cannot be understated. Engels states that Owen’s motivation, that of creating a better society, is flawed, that it is utopian and that instead another model must be sought.

I’ve yet to read any of Owen’s work, though what little reading I have done around him (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!) indicates to me that his motivations were far more similar to those that I knew when I lived and worked around the old mining towns of the north-east, whose input into my life have helped shape my socio-economic-political views. It is a socialism that is borne out of compassion, where all people are seen as and treated as equal. But Engels will have none of this.

The rest of the book is dedicated to the other half of the title: Scientific Socialism. Though this is a rather idiosyncratic use of the word ‘scientific’. It is rather dependent upon dialectic materialism, though Engels is at a loss to say what dialectic means, let alone his (and Marx’s) particular interpretation of the word. So Engels comes back to the opening The Communist Manifesto by stating that it was a great “discovery” of Marx’s is that history can be boiled down to a statement of class struggle. Opposed to the idea of all being equal, Engels maintains his view that there exists two distinct classes and that one is better than the other. That the working classes must rule and that the bourgeois must be smashed. This is not a view of socialism that I can agree with. I pointed out in my earlier review how flawed this historiography is, but its place here confirms it as one of the pillars upon which communism rests. Its unreliable analysis is one reason why I could not be a communist.

Another reason is Engels’ reliance on materialism. Again he asserts that is the right view, superior to others, but he does not engage in a critical argument, but merely assumes that he is right. Or rather, he assumes that Marx is right, as the main evidence for it seems to be in Das Kapital which, when referenced, is given all praise and no critique. There is no serious consideration for non-materialistic viewpoints, and as such there is no engagement with this. The argument, such as it, stands alone, in a vacuum. In other words, Engels urges us to adopt his point of view because there is no other. There is a place for putting forward one’s views in such a manner, as it might be impossible to take into account all relevant views, but it left me no more in favour of Engels’ flavour of socialism than I was before.

Ultimately, the book is lacking in arguing for a point. Engels relies too much on telling his readers that his points have already been proved instead of actually trying to prove them. In this sense, it is an attempt at persuasion by repetition. If you say something enough times, in uniformity, then that ingrains itself in your head. Such is the method by which shamanistic chanting, or liturgy, works.

This concludes the single volume work which contained this and the other two works of Engels noted above. In trying to educate myself as to the origins of communism, there remains one major lacuna my reading. The work reviewed here references it repeatedly, so it is to that work which I must turn next. It of course, Marx’s Das Kapital.

Book Review: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Friedrich Engels

This is my first follow-up to having read The Communist Manifesto at the start of the year. These two are in fact in the same volume along with a third work (Socialism: Scientific and Utopian) which I intend to review later. Of the three works, this is by far the most extensive, though it falls significantly short of the length of Marx’s Das Kapital.

The title of the book gives a clue as to its nature. It is a book of observations based on Engels own experience, backed up by secondary reports from the locations and the times concerned. This edition, though, is prefaced by a much older Engels. At the time the book was written, Friedrich was 24 years old and full of the zeal of youth. So this preface is an old man looking back at his younger self. In so doing, there is an element of reproof, no longer convinced that the full force of the predictions made were wholly warranted, given the evidence presented. There is also an acknowledgement that many of the complaints have been, if not invalided, ameliorated to some extent. Yet he remains somewhat defiant, somewhat proud that some of what he prophesied came about.

Leaving behind the older Engels, we then move back to the man who wrote the first draft of the book in the 1840s. He begins with an idea of what he imagines history to be. It’s not a fantastic start, as he imagines some kind of golden past in the pre-industrial age. Full of sweeping statements and devoid of evidence, the very critically minded may well be inclined to throw the book down in disgust at this point. I would encourage against this, though, as much of what follows is far more creditworthy.

The book looks at a broad overview to begin with before getting narrower and more focused. Throughout, Engels peppers his work with citations, anecdotes and other references, each of which, to their own degree, add weight, colour and texture to his argument.

His central thesis is that the condition of the working classes is conducive to ill health and an early death. Yet the condition that they find themselves in is not by accident, but has been allowed, encouraged and maintained by the bourgeois classes. As such, the proposition is that it amounts to widespread state-sponsored murder.

He takes the reader on a tour of some of the cities in England, giving a vivid picture of life for the working classes in each of these. One thing that emerges is how the design of the cities has enabled the poor to be hidden away, largely out of sight from the middle and upper classes, as well as from visitors to the city who don’t look hard enough. The conditions described are horrific. Engels doesn’t write as passionately as one might expect, if one thought that this was a particularly polemical work. Of course, there are moments of polemic in it, but for the most part it is a very serious, sober-minded study. In effect, the facts are left to speak for themselves. I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live in such conditions and the only word that came readily to mind was ‘unbearable’.

After having done his initial survey, he brings together his observations together in a chapter entitled ‘Results’. For those who have read some Hobsbawm this style will be familiar. Here is where we find some Engels’ most damning statements, but he consistently backs up his more controversial conclusions with sufficient evidence to support the argument.

After this, we narrow in and look at some specific examples of industry. In particular, we look at the rise of the factories and the life within them, the agricultural working class and miners. In so doing, we also get to see some more of the politics that was going on behind the scenes to create the conditions witnessed. A fair discussion is made of the Poor Laws, the legacy of Malthus and the development of laws surrounding working hours and the employment of children.

For those who are dismissive of trade unionism and the labour movement in general, this should be essential reading. It is an excellent explanation of why they were needed in the first place.

For me, reading it in 2014, one cannot but help think in terms of our current political situation. Some significant caution is needed, though, lest our willingness to condemn the actions of our present government lead us to anachronisms. For while no reasonable person doubts the increase in the use of foodbanks and the link to current evil regime IDS*, the precise condition of the working class today is significantly different from what it was in 1844. Even Engels admits that they were improved by 1892. Yet the good work that the labour movement has had in determining better living and working standards is over. My personal view, though, is that the political party whose name best embodies that legacy no longer has policies which seek to continue progress in the same vein.

My proposal then would be that, in a similar way that Thomas Picketty has written Capital in the 21st century, as an updating of Marx, an updating of Engels may well be in order. There is certainly plenty of evidence that one could cite in support of an updated but similar hypothesis. As yet, though, I am not aware of any single author who has examined, collated and presented a case today with the level of rigour and passion as Engels did 170 years ago. If anyone might, my bet would be on Owen Jones.

Returning to the book in question, what might we say by means of conclusion? It is indicative of a sorry state of affairs that it had to be written, but necessary it was. Engels insists on viewing everything through the lens which separates all people into bourgeois and proletariat, which, as I commented on in my review of The Communist Manifesto, is not always a reasonable way of viewing the world. But to critique that aspect should not distract us from the heart of the book, which is well-researched, well-reasoned and passionately argued. At the time it was written, it was seen as an invective against the ruling classes. Now, it serves as an illuminating window into our past. We ought to put all resources we can into ensuring that we never slip back and allow the poorest in society to be subject to such conditions, though I fear that if we open our eyes to countries currently going through their own industrial revolutions, then the echoes may be all too clear.

*Note that I was requested by a conservative blogger (soon to be an ex-blogger) on Twitter to not use the word evil, whereupon I replied that to not use it would not be honest. Having no reasonable argument to use, given the weight of evidence against them, their petulant response was to unfollow me!

Book Review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

As promised at the end of my review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, I will be following up this year with more reading of some key communist themes. And what could be a better place to start than with the communist manifesto? One could argue that no document written in the last 200 years has had such a profound effect on the course of world history. If we limit it to political history, then that case may be strengthened.

Before even opening it, though, the reader will almost inevitably be faced with some kind of prejudice. Because of what almost any educated person will know about communism and its chequered past, one might come to this document seeking an affirmation of their political point of view. Others may come with a wholly critical attitude, determined to disagree with every aspect. I came to this expecting to disagree with some aspects and agree with others, though I expected to agree with more than I disagreed with.

I refer to it as a document as it is only 34 pages long, so whether you consider this a real book review is up to you. Proportionally, it probably has the highest ratio of words in the review to words in what is being reviewed.

Published in 1848, it is clear from the start that this was a statement of a communism that already existed, albeit as a spectre. Written also before Marx’s Capital (which I hope to read and review later this year), it comes at the end of the period covered by Hobsbawm in his Age of Revolution. It opens with an assertion about history: that “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” This is the foundational principle on which the communist manifesto is built.

What Marx & Engels then go on to do is to describe the two classes which exist in all societies, the ruling class, the bourgeois, and the working class, the proletariat.

The approach to history is one that I don’t agree with. While, if you think through various aspects of history, one could adopt this very black and white methodology, it will ultimately fall short of being a true and fair description. In the 60 or so years leading up the publication of the communist manifesto, this may have been more apparent, which almost certainly had some level of influence on Marx & Engels, but it seems unreasonable to rewrite all history in this binary narrative. Yet that is precisely what they propose: to state history in terms of the present.

One could possibly look at the English Civil War or the Peasants’ Revolt in these terms without going too far wrong. But what if we look at early church history? Does the preaching of the gospel by Peter and Paul, the riots and imprisonments they faced fit this narrative? If one could construct such a narrative it would be highly forced and miss vitally important features.

As it is stated, therefore, I cannot agree unreservedly with the opening premise. That’s not to say it is wholly worthless. Given the historical and political background out of the communist manifesto came, it does help to put on this particular pair of glasses to see the metanarrative of what was going on in western Europe at the time. This is the task that Hobsbawm undertook, though it must be added that he was rather more sophisticated than the writers of the manifesto.

The feeling I got all the way through was one of anger. Not anger on my part, but that it was the product of disillusioned minds. It seemed easy to imagine that it might be the product of an intelligent, literate, but ultimately misguided teenager.

The argument roughly runs as thus: the bourgeois have been the rulers of Europe and that in spite of some obvious progress that has been made, they ultimately cannot be trusted and that since there are only two classes (according to the definition) then it is time for the proletariat to assume control. How this is to be achieved is muddled. At times, references are made to democratic elections, as there is an assumption that since the working classes outnumber the bourgeois that winning an election is inevitable. At other times, most famously at the end, there is a call for violent revolution.

There are many flaws in this analysis, not least the belief in the homogeneity of the working classes. It is quite patronising, even, to presume that because the communists wish for the working class to rule (though who, precisely, is never stated) that there should be universal support for the communist manifesto.

In fact, to call it a manifesto is a bit generous. There are very few proposals in it. Though there is a short list of 10 demands. One could go into more detail for each of these, though I may do that in a separate blog post. Oddly, the one that shocked me the most was the 10th: “Free education in all public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production &c., &c.” I am not certain as to whether the term “public schools” meant ‘public’ in the terms of being open to all or whether, as is peculiar in British history (remembering that Marx and Engels were both informed by the politics of Britain) of using the term ‘public’ when what it is actually meant is ‘private’. Perhaps one of you can enlighten me on this issue. Either way, to have the idea of free education to be thought of as radical makes me think how far we have come.

There are several issues I have with the vision that Marx & Engels proposed. It seems to me to be unrealistically ideal. They seem to hark back to some kind of ‘golden age’ of full employment, with a strong emphasis on agriculture. Whether such an age existed is dubious, yet their view of history prevents a sober assessment. I am also not a proponent of the revolutionary aspects of their proposal, in particular the idea of wresting property by force.

Though I could not wholly endorse them, that does not mean that I then fall back onto a default position of opposition. The critiques of the middle classes and the control of capital are not groundless. Yet the views which I hold to are roughly described, and criticised, by Marx and Engels. They refer to it as bourgeois socialism, where the emphasis is not about seizing political control, but about the improvement of the conditions of the working classes through reform rather than revolution.

It doesn’t take long to read, but there is much to ponder here. On the basis of what I have read, I could not consider myself, or be reasonably considered by others, to be a communist. I object to the hardline nature of the document but do agree with some of the points made.

I’ll let you make of it what you will.