This is the best text to read for those seek an acquaintance with Marxism, and is the book most often recommended on introductory courses. It is simultaneously more detailed and easier to read than the "Communist Manifesto".
Engels begins with the eighteenth century philosophers who "prepared men's minds for the coming revolution and for whom Reason became the sole measure of everything." He then proceeds to examine the work of three men he dubs "Utopian" socialists - St. Simon, Fourier and Owen - who advanced beyond the philosophers in seeing the need for economic as well as political equality. However, says Engels, they shared the same error in supposing mankind can be liberated by truth and reason. St. Simon's error was to divide warring classes into workers and "idlers". Fourier brilliantly satirized the bourgeoisie but was unable to fully understand capitalism. Robert Owen came to desire a communistic society but wrongly thought it could be achieved by co-operatives. All Utopian socialists failed to understand historical processes.
All this is an introduction to one of Engels' favourite hobby-horses - so-called scientific socialism, which Engels said was given a boost by the 1831 working class rising in Lyons and the peak of the Chartist movement in England between 1838 and 1842. These showed there was no chance of a harmony of interest between the classes and "it was seen that all past history, with the exception of the primitive stages, was the history of class struggles." Of course, it was only Marx who had made the key discoveries. Engels writes:
"These two great discoveries, the materialist conception of history, and the revelation of the secret of capitalist production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science."
The materialist conception of history sees economic relationships as the key shaper of historical events. In Marxism, the all-important economic structure, or "foundation", of society determines the "superstructure" of ideas, morals, religion, institutions etc. In its extreme form historical materialism is completely deterministic, and in this form it is open to serious objections. Though Marx and Engels probably did not do enough to disown the enthusiasm for determinism of their supporters it is clear they meant something less. Later Engels was to write that economics "is in the last resort decisive" but adds that "the various elements of the superstructure...exert an influence of the historical struggles, and in many instances determine their form." The problem for the reader is to know what "in the last resort" actually means. How much can be reduced to economics? For example, Marx may have been right to suppose the bourgeoisie saw religion as useful "opium of the people" but it is hard to believe that the religious impulse itself is artificially manufactured.
The second strand in "scientific socialism" is the labour theory of value, which asserts that labour is not paid the full value of its product - the difference between the wage and the value of the workers' labour being profit. From this dubious proposition an edifice is built to demonstrate that (scientifically speaking) revolution is inevitable, to be followed by a classless society without political authority. The labour theory of value means that profit is by definition exploitation. The nature of capitalism means constant competition with wages driven down to subsistence level, and when they can fall no further capitalists turn to machines, which create a "reserve army of the unemployed". Wages become so low that not all the goods produced can be purchased, i.e. over-production. This leads to trade cycles of booms and slumps and ever-deepening crises. The constant competition also means that over time the number of firms is reduced with a tendency towards a few large firms, which is an inherent contradiction within capitalism, and both Engels and Marx are keen to identify such "contradictions" as part of the dialectical process they see operating. Not surprisingly, they think all this breeds alienation among the proletariat. Eventually revolution in the most advanced capitalist states will overthrow the bourgeoisie and usher in a classless society. However, capitalism has not seen society divided into just two classes and the proletariat has not sunk into the pitiful state predicted.
After the revolution political authority will disappear for only administrative functions will remain. Engels has a great deal to say about this, though not as much as Lenin. He writes about the workers seizing control of the bourgeois state and in a well-known passage concludes with the following words:
"The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society - the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society - this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the processes of production. The state is not `abolished'. It dies out."
Here Engels makes a distinction between government and politics on the one hand, and administration on the other. Marx and Engels believed that all important disagreements between people would disappear along with classes, and any remaining disagreements could be settled amicably. The only remaining authority would be that necessary to organise industry. Boundless optimism is expressed about man's qualities under these circumstances, and most people today concede Marx's contention that human nature is not fixed but alters with the social and economic conditions of the age.
But is human nature quite as pliable as Marx and Engels supposed? And even if we lived in a world without private property would all the issues at the heart of British politics today disappear? This seems unlikely given debates about health, education, the environment, agriculture and moral issues such as abortion and animal rights.