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Anger at poverty in a world of plenty

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Issue 1706

Pamphlet on early anti-capitalist thinkers

Anger at poverty in a world of plenty

A GROWING body of anti-capitalist activists and thinkers today attack the injustice of the system and debate how to win a different society. The arguments thrown up in this movement are as important, and as old, as capitalism itself. In the early 19th century a series of thinkers wrote and organised against capitalism. They put forward schemes for transforming the world for the better. These thinkers were a key inspiration for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels when they developed their socialist ideas in the mid- 19th century. Frederick Engels’ pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific celebrates and embraces the contribution of these early anti-capitalists but also looks at the limitations in their arguments.

THE THREE figures Engels focused on were the Comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. All wrote in the years after the 1789 French Revolution had swept away the old feudal order, and when the industrial revolution was transforming the world. Two, Saint-Simon and Owen, were from wealthy backgrounds. But all of them railed against the injustice and barbarity of capitalism. Saint-Simon attacked the “idlers” who lived off the backs of those who “worked”. His “idlers” were the aristocracy and other such parasites, and among those who “worked” he included factory owners alongside workers.

But, as Engels pointed out. “what interests him first and above all other things is the lot of ‘the largest and poorest class'”-the propertyless who do most of the work in the world.

Saint-Simon argued for a new society as an alternative to capitalism, one based not on private property but on cooperative production. “In Saint-Simon,” Engels enthused, “we find a masterly breadth of view by virtue of which almost all the ideas of later socialists are found in embryo.” Fourier, a travelling salesman in France, built on these initiatives. His travels led him to see at first hand the misery that early industrialisation produced.

In capitalism, Fourier argued, immense wealth exists alongside, indeed seems to produce, immense poverty. It is as though, he argued, “poverty is born of abundance itself”. Fourier damned the obscenity created by the profit motive. He particularly recalled an episode when, during a period of famine, rice had been tipped into the water at the French port of Marseilles in order to keep the price up. Fourier had an overwhelming sympathy for the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed.

Way ahead of his time he also declared that “social progress occurs by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and social decline by virtue of decreases in the liberty of women”. If only, Fourier argued, the anarchy of capitalism could be replaced with a rational society, humans would be in “harmony” with one another. THE THIRD thinker was an English factory owner, Robert Owen. His position gave him new insights into the capitalist system.

He saw the immense wealth produced in the new industrial centres. In one factory a working “population of 7,500 persons was daily producing as much real wealth for society as, less than half a century before, it would have required the working part of the population of 600,000 to create. “I asked myself, what became of the difference between the wealth consumed by 7,500 persons and that which would have been consumed by 600,000?” The answer for Owen was clear. The surplus had gone to the capitalist in the form of profit. Against this Owen argued that as all this wealth “was the creation of the working class” it was to them that it belonged. Such thinkers did not stop at describing and criticising capitalism. They wanted, and worked for, an alternative. Fourier argued for and planned a new “utopian” society, which he called a “phalanstere”.

There would be a minimum of trade in this model society, and people would swap jobs so they didn’t become bored. The only thing Fourier could not work out was who was going to collect the rubbish. Then he struck on the idea of giving the job to young boys, who seemed to like playing in dirt! Robert Owen went much further in trying to build a new society. In 1800 he had opened a cotton mill in New Lanark, on the banks of the River Clyde.

He decided to turn New Lanark into an experiment in “communist” living. He cut the working day, paid higher wages than other bosses, set up infant schools for the workers’ children and built “social” housing.

ENGELS acknowledged the work of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen-who became known as the utopian socialists-as a key inspiration for himself and Karl Marx. But he also pointed to limitations in the ideas of the utopians. They saw the misery inflicted on workers by capitalism. But they rarely focused on the capacity of workers to challenge the capitalist system. And they tended to think that simply pointing out the insanity of capitalism and arguing for a rational alternative were enough.

“If society presented nothing but abuses,” Engels wrote, “then to remove them was the task of reason. It was the question of inventing a more perfect social order and of imposing it on society from without.” But simply trying to create alternative societies within the capitalist system, whether Fourier’s phalansteres or Owen’s model community, could not work. Fourier, for instance, hoped to persuade the capitalist class to back his alternative. But they turned a deaf ear to his rational arguments, preferring profits for a few over the good of all. And Owen’s New Lanark was still a capitalist enterprise. However “reformed”, it still had to make profits to stay in business. Workers still did long hours and backbreaking work and, as Owen himself acknowledged, “the people are slaves at my mercy”.

Owen went on from New Lanark to found a series of experimental “colonies” in America, in which he lost all his wealth. But they all failed and he returned to England. It was then that Owen made a breakthrough in understanding how dreams of a better world could be made a reality, a breakthrough that Marx and Engels were to build on. Owen “turned directly to the working class”, which he had argued created all the wealth under capitalism.

And, Engels said, Owen “continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers, is linked with Owen’s name. Thus, in 1819, after five years effort he pushed through the first law limiting the labour of women and children in factories. He presided over the first congress at which all the trade unions of England united in a single great trade union association.” Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was a key force in the movement that erupted in the great Chartist workers’ revolt of the 1830s and 1840s in England.

Engels pointed out that this working class grows bigger and bigger, as the insatiable demands of capitalism “increasingly transform the great majority of men into proletarians (workers)”. The working class, brought together in the workplaces, can build a bridge to the future that the utopians imagined. After all, the workers, as Owen had revealed, produced all the wealth in society. They had the capacity to seize control of that wealth and instead of producing to satisfy the capitalists’ demand for profit use it to meet people’s needs. It was no longer necessary to hark back to a bygone age of small producers, or to dream of a “utopia” without any real means of getting there. “The seizure of all the means of production by society has often been dreamt of, more or less vaguely as an ideal of the future. But it could only become possible, when the actual conditions for its realisation were present. To accomplish this world-emancipating act is the historical mission of the modern proletariat (working class).”

  • Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels, 2.95 (plus 45p postage) from Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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