On Socialism, Utopian and Scientific [1] by Frederick Engels

Thomas L. Wayburn

Table of Contents


Dialectical Materialism Versus Idealism

Scientific Socialism

Inconsistencies in the Theory of the Development of Socialism

Economic Cycles

The Role of the Worker

Economic Expansion

The Withering Away of the State





This interesting little pamphlet describes the history of socialism from eighteenth-century French philosophy through Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Hegel, and, finally, Karl Marx.  We read that, because of Hegel, we can “view the history of mankind ... as the process of evolution of man himself.”  Engels must be referring to social evolution since the entire period of history is too short to result in non-negligible biological evolutionary change in man.  Even this is open to debate, however the proposition that human history “cannot find its final term in the discovery of any so-called absolute truth” does not seem to be in immediate danger of contradiction.

The difficulty with trying to understand the history of man as an inevitable course of events that can be used to predict the future arises because of chaos, a phenomenon that has been studied ad nauseam in the last two decades.  Fundamentally, the situation is this.  Human society can be modeled approximately as a complex nonlinear dynamical system.  Even a relatively simple nonlinear dynamical system can exhibit highly complex behavior.  A system as simple as the ecology of foxes and rabbits, i.e., predators and prey, exhibits chaos.  Two systems that exhibit the smallest (nonzero) differences imaginable at some distinguished time, say now, are capable of being as far apart as you can imagine after any finite length of time.  Thus, the inevitability of any predicted historical development is open to considerable skepticism.  The approximate nature of the model of human society means that the behavior of human society is likely to be even more unpredictable than the model.  [Note in proof:  Mathematicians should remember that the theorem [2], according to which initial value problems for ordinary differential equations are guaranteed to have solutions, guarantees the existence of these solutions for a finite length of time only, which might be a millionth of a second, say.]

Engels makes the very important point, and, perhaps, his only point, in describing the appropriation of the products of socialized industry by the capitalist (owner) from the producer (worker).  It is interesting to consider that history might have taken a different turn here.  The workers might have exhibited solidarity at the outset and demanded the right to dispose of the products of industry collectively under threat of general defection.  Clearly the owners could not have engaged in mass production by themselves.

Dialectical Materialism Versus Idealism

In this chapter of the monograph, we read that modern materialism takes a larger view of nature moving in recurrent cycles.  These are no longer viewed as eternally immutable but as evolving.  This led to the discovery “that the economic structure of society always furnishes the 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.”  Since this working out occurs in the mind and not in time, we can assume that Engels means that the economic structure and the rest of society are congruent.  Engels is about to abandon this congruence in only a few pages.

Engels claims that idealism could not show what the exploitation of the working class consisted of and how it arose.  Since I wish to defend idealism, it is incumbent upon me to point out that dialectical materialism has shown only what the materialistic side of the exploitation consisted of, namely, the improper appropriation of surplus value.  It fails to illuminate the spiritual misfortunes of all workers who are not able to follow their natural inclinations.

Engels claims that the view of society as the inevitable struggle between two warring classes, arising from the social acceptance, as a convention, of the misappropriation of the products of socialized industry, points to an inevitable conclusion.  But, we have just shown, in our paragraph on chaos, that faith in such an inevitable conclusion is unwarranted.  Nothing in the future is inevitable.  Moreover, by abandoning idealism, dialectical materialism has lost the vision of the ideal society so necessary to charting a social course.  At the same time, Marxism has not abandoned its own attempts to influence the future, which according to materialism is futile.

Scientific Socialism

Engels claims that the dialectical materialistic conception of history and the identification of surplus value as the explanation for social incongruity made socialism scientific, but, while Marxism has some science in it, it doesn’t have much.  Moreover, it has not kept pace with new scientific discoveries, for examples, thermodynamics, the quantum theory, and nonlinear dynamics, which is perhaps why very few living scientists embrace it.  I have already pointed out the unscientific nature of the view that the future is inevitable, a view which belongs more to Newton than it does to Heisenberg or Prigogine, and my choice of Prigogine as an example is conciliatory, as those who know his work will recognize.  It has been common in the past for men who are not men of science to use the word science to lend credibility to endeavors that have nothing to do with science and, clearly, the practice continues.  I read recently an interview with a psychologist who styles himself a researcher/practitioner.  I was struck by the unscientific nature of his “research”.  I wish people who don’t understand science would stop trying to drag themselves along by its coat tails.

I believe that decompetitionism, which is another name for dematerialism, has a better claim to the term scientific than does dialectical materialism.  Although not all of its theories have been put on a firm scientific basis yet, the possibility remains that they can be.  The decompetitionist’s moral basis of society uses the axiomatic method, which is an acceptable mode of doing science from the nominalist view, whereas history has not now nor will it ever have a scientific basis.

Finally, Marxism tries to separate economics from philosophy, according to Engels.  This is a bad idea because it deprives economics of a firm logical basis.  This error is corrected by decompetitionism, which really does add a moral dimension to economics, unlike Amitai Etzioni’s deontological economics, which confuses morality with obedience to authority. (Etzioni’s book [3] is called The Moral Dimension, but this is just a smoke screen to hide the essential immorality of his ideas.)

Inconsistencies in the Theory of the Development of Socialism

Engels claims that the “perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust” proves the failure of the “social order” to keep up with the changes in the “modes of production and exchange”, i.e., industry and business.  Recall that earlier Engels had established a congruity between the social order and economic conditions.  This, in fact, was one of the fundamental observations of dialectical materialism and, moreover, a condition that we observe in America, where business and industry have absorbed nearly all of society.  These two statements appear to be inconsistent.  Engels further claims that this disparity or that the proof of it (one is not quite sure which is meant from the context) implies that “the means of getting rid of the incongruities that have been brought to light must also be present, in a more or less developed condition, within the changed modes of production and exchange themselves.”  Engels does not supply any intermediate steps in this tremendous logical leap, which is unacceptable as it stands even though it may be true.

Further, because of the lack of careful deduction, considerable doubt is cast upon the very next statement that “[t]hese means (of getting rid of the incongruities) are not to be invented by deduction from fundamental principles, but are to be discovered in the stubborn facts of the existing system of production.”  In fact, the scientific approach is to do both: observe the facts, which, regrettably, might not be “stubborn” enough to bear scientific scrutiny, and deduce a solution from fundamental principles. That is the approach of decompetitionism.  I believe that the confusion and unsupported conclusions at this point in Engels’ argument are extremely damaging to his entire thesis.

Economic Cycles

Engels makes the very important point that, initially, the “compulsory laws of competition” were unknown to the producers themselves.  Lack of agreement among economists shows that they are still unknown.  This implies the necessity of planning, according to logic accepted by both socialists and decompetitionists.  I have discussed this logic in some detail.

I am not sure that I understand Engels’ objection to the concept of commodity though.  According to decompetitionist thinking commodities are to be represented as components of input and output column vectors in the large linear systems that are to be used as constraints for the large linear (in some cases nonlinear or mixed linear, nonlinear, and integer) programming problem that has to be solved repeatedly to do optimal economic planning.  Economic planning, or rather optimal economic planning, will force the concept of commodity to serve mankind rather than to cause economic anarchy.

Engels observes that “the contradiction between socialized production and capitalistic appropriation now presents itself as an antagonism between the organization of production in the individual workshop and the anarchy of production in society generally” as well as an “antagonism of proletarian and bourgeoisie.”  These antagonisms are supposed to have driven man back into the jungle.  Engels himself would probably be shocked to discover how true this would turn out to be.

Engels constructs the theory of economic cycles out of the lack of understanding of the laws of competition, the necessity of industrial expansion, and the replacement of the worker by machines.  For the time being let us accept the necessity of economic expansion (for capitalism to be successful) as a given, to be placed under greater scrutiny later.  Recessions are caused by expansion of industry together with inflation of stock prices, fueled by financial speculation that borders, nowadays, on the fantastic, followed by overproduction of commodities, which the working people, who are the bulk of the consumers, cannot afford to buy because it takes fewer and fewer workers to produce the unit commodity and even some of that reduced work force must be laid off to reduce inventories, which represent the loss of the time value of money to the capitalist.  Thus, there is want because of abundance.  When inventories are sufficiently reduced, government can stimulate lending, new capital becomes available, and the cycle begins again.  These circumstances are exacerbated, in ways that even Marx could not have foreseen, by the global nature of capitalistic economies.

Because of the conflicts and antagonisms discussed above, the worker is supposed to play a role in changing what might have been quasi-stable periodic cycles into an ever-diminishing, tightening spiral that is supposed to result in the overthrow of the system, probably in a violent revolution.  I shall discuss the role of the worker in the next section.  For now suffice it to say that there are good scientific reasons why it is impossible to depend on Engels’ scenario actually occurring.  I shall try to cast the difficulty into the language of periodic solutions of dynamical systems without resorting to the concept of chaos.  In the sequel I shall attempt to show how some of the theoretical conditions that Engels is counting on might not be satisfied in practice.

When an orbit of a dynamical system exhibits a spiral trajectory of decreasing distance from some distinguished point in the abstract space that represents the state of the system (positions) as well as its motion (velocities or momenta), one of two outcomes can result – normally.  In the outcome imagined by Engels, the orbit spirals into the distinguished point, which, for Engels, is the socialist revolution.  In another outcome, the spiral approaches, asymptotically, i.e., comes closer and closer to, but never reaches, except after an infinite period of time, what is known as a limit cycle.  This would be a stable periodic orbit, which in the case of a global economy could be a world controlled by a handful of people who reduce the rest of the human race to no better than complicated robots every thought of whom is determined by the rulers, as in the classic novel 1984 by George Orwell.  The thesis of Marx and Engels, which excludes this scenario, is far too optimistic.

Which of the outcomes will actually occur in a system as complicated as an entire economy is impossible to determine.  I believe the well-known Poincaré-Bendixson Theorem could be used to determine which one of the outcomes will occur, but for a large system it is impossible to know enough about the system to apply the theorem.  Presumably, Marx and Engels were unacquainted with the Poincaré-Bendixson Theorem.  Poincaré was only sixteen years old when Engels’ pamphlet was written.

The Role of the Worker

On p. 45 we read that “the present structure of society ... is the creation of the ruling class”, whereas, according to the principles of dialectical materialism, the present structure of society was supposed to be the inevitable result of spontaneous evolution.  Also, I question the statement on p. 46 that, “Modern socialism is nothing but the reflex, in thought, of this conflict in fact; its ideal reflection in the minds, first, of the ... working class.”  I believe that the average worker is intelligent enough to understand his (or her) situation and recognize what the remedy is.  In addition, he has the advantage of not having had his mind filled up with a lot of garbage in a university.  But, I think it is stretching a point to imagine that the recognition of the “conflict between productive forces and modes of production” occurred first, as a reflex in thought, in the minds of the working class.  Probably, modern socialism came from the same place that idealism came from, namely, the minds of (idle?) intellectuals.

The average wage earner doesn’t understand the essential injustice of the system; he (or she) just wants a secure job with good wages and safe working conditions.  The call for jobs belies the notion of modern socialism arising from the “reflex, in thought,” of the “conflict between productive forces and modes of production”.  A job is where you trade the time of your life and your freedom for the means of subsistence.  Nobody who understood the system would be calling for jobs.  Instead workers would demand the opportunity to contribute to society on their own basis as an equal partner in enterprises of their own choice.  Decompetitionism is based on the premise that workers are capable of having their consciousnesses raised to new heights of expectation.  Decompetitionism, apparently, has a higher opinion of the intelligence of the average person than does Marxism.  But, the hard facts remain that no one has figured out how to achieve this raising of consciousness – although some suggestions have been offered.

At this point, I would like to comment on the quote from Capital by Karl Marx  on p. 52: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labor, slavery, ignorance, brutalization, mental degradation at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital.”  The fact of this polarization is everywhere apparent, but I have been unable to prove its necessity (under capitalism).  What I can prove is the necessity of great personal wealth if there is widespread poverty in a producing economy.  If wealth is being produced on a bountiful earth and one sees poverty everywhere, the wealth must be going somewhere!  The other day I saw a new Mercedes with Mexican plates and experienced the above striking, albeit minor, realization.  Of course, much of Mexico’s wealth goes to American banks as interest on the national debt.

Finally, I come to the role that is supposed to be played by the worker in the tightening of the spiral.  Despite the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and the reduction of the worker to an intolerable state, I do not believe we can count on the worker to play the role envisioned by Marx and Engels, mainly because the working class may be disappearing.  First of all, as Engels pointed out way back in 1870, many workers are being replaced by machines.  Today we have the science of robotics, which, theoretically, could displace everyone.  Already, some industries can function without any operators at all!  In addition, the working class is sending its children to college where many of them will learn how to shuffle paper and manipulate other human beings.  Industry will employ foreign and immigrant workers who are not yet empowered by unions, which, incidentally, seem less able to confer power now than in the 50s and 60s.  As the United States becomes an information society, workers will lose what little clout they have.

The other day I saw a program on hunger on CBS (the Columbia Broadcasting System – in case this book is around long enough that readers don’t remember what CBS was).  Efforts to educate the children of Mexican migrant workers were discussed.  If these efforts were successful, the next generation of Mexican Americans would leave agriculture to produce something less useful than food.  Someone would have to replace them and the demand for food would increase.

When the condition of the disenfranchised worker gets to the point where he has nothing left to lose, he may riot or, possibly, engage in some form of organized rebellion, perhaps terrorism.  Probably, the bloodshed would be enormous and, probably, nothing would change.  We need to do something before things get that bad.  What is to be gained by suffering and death if better results can be obtained without it?  I believe that there is a way to achieve better results without bloodshed or, at least, with very little bloodshed.  At least no one has convinced me that there isn’t a way.

Rather than appeal to only one social class, decompetitionism addresses its philosophy to all reasoning men and women.  The harm done by the existing system to all classes is emphasized.

Economic Expansion

Engels relies on the necessity of economic expansion in his thesis, nor does he abandon the desirability of economic expansion for the post-revolutionary world.  I need to address both of these questions, i.e., the necessity and the desirability of economic expansion.

On p. 52 we read, “modern industry ... hunts after new consumers over the whole world.”  He refers to the “necessity of expansion” on p. 53 and, finally, on p. 62, in the summary, we read, “On the other hand [as opposed to the displacement of workers], [there is] unlimited extension of production, also compulsory under competition, for every manufacturer.”  Now, I have always taken, as an article of faith, that capitalism requires an expanding economy, and I require a proof of this to support some of the reasoning, but it is not clear to me that Engels has supplied a proof.

A number of conjectures occur to me, but I cannot claim that they offer a satisfactory proof.  The first is that expansion is the result of the proverbial greed of the capitalist; the greater the production and sales, the more money for him.  Also, a large inventory, provided he doesn’t get stuck with it, puts the capitalist in a position to out-maneuver his competition by providing a larger selection, by holding sales, and by periodically dumping on the market when he perceives that it could be ruinous to his competition.  This is the way in which some monopolies were established, particularly Standard Oil, now Exxon.  Another, perhaps farfetched, explanation for the desire of capitalists to expand is their own birth rate.  If capitalists themselves have more than two children, the ruling class will expand even if there are no new entrants (or drop-outs).  Thus, in order that the standard of living of the next generation of the ruling class not be reduced, the size of the pie must increase, assuming that the margin of profit cannot be improved.  I continue to await a good explanation of the necessity for economic expansion under capitalism.  [However, see “On Capitalism”.]

On p. 60 we read, “The expansive force of the means of production bursts the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon them.”  This is the first reference to continued expansion of production in a socialist society.  We are told to expect “a practically unlimited increase of production.”  Even in 1870 Engels should have known better than to say that.  Einstein once said that, of all the physical sciences, thermodynamics is the one that is least likely ever to be overthrown.  By 1870 the Second Law of thermodynamics was very well known.  The Second Law shows that unlimited expansion of production would lead to a job of cleaning up the mess, i.e., restoring the environment to a livable condition, that would take more resources than industry is capable of providing, that is, the overhead on production would finally reach 100%.  Far from an expanding economy, decompetitionism calls for a homeostatic economy.  As I have discussed elsewhere, this implies a nearly constant population density.

It is true that, in a homeostatic society, additional wealth will become available “by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today and their political representatives.”  It is also true that even greater wealth will become available when the tremendous efforts of businessmen, for example, to get a larger share of the pie for themselves or their bosses and the even greater efforts of those who service them are diverted into making the pie bigger.  The United States seems to be gravitating toward an economy that invests tremendous effort, by armies of hard-working people (white-collar workers), into producing nothing, except information, which, of course, is not the same as what we usually mean by wealth, i.e., you can’t eat it.  [Note in proof:  However see Chapter 5 on emergy.]

The Withering Away of the State

According to Engels, socialized production goes through the following sequence: small companies managed by the capitalist himself, joint-stock companies managed by salaried workers, trusts and the disappearance of free competition, state property with the state a capitalist machine.  This is supposed to be followed by the taking over of the state by “society as a whole” and, finally, the withering away of the state.  On p. 56 we read that state ownership of the means of production is not the solution of the aforementioned social conflicts.  “This solution can consist only in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonizing of the modes of production, appropriation, and exchange with the socialized character of the means of production.  And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces, which have outgrown all control except that of society as a whole.”  I don’t believe that “society as a whole” can exercise control.  But, if it could, I wonder who will act on my behalf?  It is unlikely that decisions made in common will satisfy me.  Decompetitionists believe that it is a mistake to lump together the functions of planning and control.  While planning can be done centrally, it is necessary that control be distributed.  Tell me what you need, but don’t tell me how to make it.

Engels believes that once producers working together understand the “active social forces”, those forces can be tamed.  He wants to plan and regulate production “according to the needs of the community and of each individual.”  He favors, as do I, direct individual appropriation of the products of industry, which, by the way, I still refer to as commodities.  Engels doesn’t say how this is to be accomplished.  I have discussed the operation of a noncompetitionistic economy in some detail.  Subsequent chapters will consider this process in even greater detail using the case history method, appropriated from business education.  A noncompetitionistic economic system need only be aware of what is being appropriated (consumed) in order to supply statisticians with the raw data to be fed back into the planning process.  Incentives to hoard or consume conspicuously or extravagantly should disappear because of education and the reintroduction of surplus wealth into the economy.

It is difficult to tell from Engels’ little pamphlet what will remain when the state has rendered itself unnecessary and has withered away.  Presumably, there will still be an apparatus for centralized planning and control.  Will it be a huge, wasteful, corrupt, and inefficient bureaucracy?  What is to prevent it from becoming one?  How will society be protected from “natural leaders” who might dominate those of us who are not natural leaders, but, nevertheless, do not wish to be dominated?  How is political power going to be distributed?  Will people be able to do as they please provided they do not interfere with the freedom of others?  How is population going to be controlled?  Will new classes of privileged people arise?  Who will stop this from occurring?  Will not the planners themselves enjoy a distinguished position?  These are questions that are answered by decompetitionism but are not answered by Marx and Engels as far as I know.

Finally, it is hard to believe that the state ever will wither away.  Presumably, the state is a bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats live by the principle of survival, first, last, and always.


Despite an accurate interpretation of past history and of current events in the late nineteenth century, there are a number of questionable points in the thesis of Marx and Engels, as elucidated by Engels, especially with respect to an accurate prediction of the future.

1.       We have shown that the rejection of idealism for dialectical materialism is based on incorrect reasoning.  Moreover, socialism has lost the advantage of having an ideal so that society can determine whether a proposed social change is taking it closer to that ideal or not.

2.       Dialectical materialism isn’t as scientific as its proponents would have us believe.

3.       Socialism probably arose in the minds of the leisured intelligentsia rather than, as a reflex, in the minds of the working class.

4.       The scientific basis for the ever-tightening spiral has been thrown in doubt.

5.       Concern has been expressed about the future role of the working class.  In addition, it seems more desirable to address the concerns of all segments of society.

6.       The necessity of economic expansion under capitalism and the desirability of economic expansion under the new system are questioned.  I believe that capitalism requires economic growth, but I can’t prove it.  On the other hand, I favor a homeostatic economy, after the major consumers of energy, such as motor cars, trucks, and airplanes have been eliminated.  I favor a high-tech, low-energy pastoral economy, with adequate space for wilderness and wildlife.

7.       Finally, a number of concerns about what will remain when the state withers away, if it withers away, have been expressed.  Decompetitionism answers these questions; Marxism does not.


1.       Engels, Frederich, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Pathfinder, New York (1989).

2.       Hurewicz, Witold, Lectures on Ordinary Differential Equations, MIT Press, Cambridge (1958).

3.       Etzioni, Amatai, The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics, The Free Press, New York (1988).

Houston, Texas

January 25, 1990