Idealism v. Socialism. A Critic Answered

The following criticism of the third chapter of Engels’ “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific,” raises objections to the fundamental principles of scientific Socialism. And as many others may jump to similar erroneous conclusions through failing first to master the elements of the problem, it will be both interesting and useful (at least to those desirous of understanding the Socialist philosophy) to review the points raised.

The criticism runs as follows :


“The Socialist Party of Great Britain is founded upon the economic priucipleslaid down by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, principles which, it must be admitted, are, on the whole, sound and well conceived. But on applying logic to the particular phase of the subject known as “Scientific Socialism,” one comes up against anomalous situations which it is here my purpose to point out.

My first point is this. Engels asserts, on p. 29 of his “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific,” that “the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.”

The only term applicable to such a statement is “economic fatalism,” and such is the creed of Marx. Now if it be true that “ideas are secondary things in the changing or transforming of a society,” a statement that was made in the pamphlet “Socialism and Religion,” and which is the implication of the above Engelian assertion, does it not seem absurd that the S.P.G.B. should strive to educate the proletariat to class-consciousness ? Why educate if the “final causes are to be found not in rnens’ brains” ? Engels tells us that “society at present contains, in a more or less developed condition, the means of getting rid of the incongruities of capitalism,” and if that be so, how can man contol, or can he control at all, these means, which I take to be economic forces ?

Socialism is a deduction from present-day phenomena,—it is not a fact but a theory—a theory based upon logical deduction. Therefore I cannot see how it can be scientific. But that being so, Socialism is not a remedy for poverty, etc., for Engels says “these means” (referred to above) “are not to be invented by deduction from fundamental principles, but are to be discovered in the stubborn facts of the present-day system of production.” (Page 30.)

Following upon the above, one is astounded by the following seeming contradiction : “The present structure of society is the creation of the ruling class of to-day.”

Surely this cannot be, for we have just been told that “changes must not be sought in men’s brains,” therefore to speak of the bourgeois class as the designers and creators of capitalism is obviously contradictory ; if the bourgeois class created capitalism, why cannot we infer that the proletariat will, by combined political action, create the Socialist system ?” The bourgeoisie broke up the feudal system and built upon its ruins the capitalist order of society” (Page 30.)

I defy the S.P.G.B. to disprove the statement that ideas are the predecessors of economic change. Ideas are not of secondary importance as stated in the pamphlet “Socialism and Religion,” but of primary importance. What transformed society in the time of the Revolution but inventions, that is, ideas ? What will abolish capitalism and bring Socialism but ideas ? We must educate the proletariat, must imbue that class with the idea of social ownership, must, in brief, preach Socialism. And then, when the proletariat has reached that point of intellectual impregnability termed class-consciousness, they will not hesitate to capture the political machinery, and utilising that machinery as a lever, will transform the capitalist State into the Socialist regime.



One’s first care in serious discussion must be correct terminology and accurate quotation. Now it is not correct to say that “economic fatalism” is the creed of Marx. The Socialist is not a fatalist but a determinist. Fatalism (even stripped of its gross superstition) ignores or defies man, and denies him his place among social forces ; thus falsifying sociology by suppressing an important factor. Determinism, on the other hand, gives man his due and recognises him as the vehicle of certain social forces with a part to play in social change that cannot be ignored. This is so even though man’s part is determined by heredity and environment—that is by past and present social conditions—and is ultimately explicable only from the economic basis. As the point has been put by Prof. Pannekoek :

“Not only the moral codes, but also other products of the human mind such as religion, science, arts, philosophy, were then understood to be connected with the actual material conditions of society. The human mind is influenced in all its products by the entire world outside of it. And thus the mind is seen to be a part of nature, and the science of the mind becomes a natural science. The impressions of the outer world determine the experience of man, his wants determine his will, and his general wants his moral will. The world around him determines man’s wants and impressions, but these, on the other hand, determine his will and activity by which he changes the world; this will-directed activity appears in the process of social production. In this manner man by his work is a part, a link in the great chain of natural and social development.” (Preface to Dietzgen’s “Positive Outcome of Philosophy.” Kerr.)

Thus the historic materialism of Marx and Engels (using the word materialism in its broad philosophic sense as opposed to idealism), while recognising the economicas the essential groundwork, embraces the whole of the factors—the reflex as well as the direct—and places them in their true relative positions.

Further, in the pamphlet on Socialism and Religion, issued by the Socialist Party, the statement which our correspondent puts in quotation marks nowhere occurs. As will be seen later, such a statement would convey a false impression. The passage our critic has in his mind is doubtless the following, which occurs in the preface to the second edition, now on sale.

“The Socialist case against religion differs widely from the usual Freethought position. There are Rationalist superstitions as well as Christian. Religion was not the wicked invention of charlatans, nor is the passing of superstition simply to be explained by the ‘triumph of Reason.’ As shown in the following pages the ‘march of mind,’ the development of science, and the decay of religion, are themselves ultimately explicable only from the evolution of economic conditions. Ideas play a secondary part in social development. They are the effects of the material environment on human beings, and are not the creative motive force of social evolution. Consequently, in his worship of the ‘idea’ the bourgeois freethinker is, like the Christian, attributing miraculous powers to the figments of men’s brains.”

Our critic’s misquotation shows that he confuses the gradual economic development with the conscious revolution.

It explains why he is “astounded” at Engels’ statement that the present structure of society is the creation of the bourgeoisie.

Marx has outlined the materialist conception of history in the preface to his “Critique of Political Economy,” and in the course of it he says :

“In considering such revolutions we must always distinguish clearly between the change in the industrial methods of social production on the one hand ; this change takes place unconsciously, according to the laws of natural science, and might properly be called an evolution.
And, on the other hand, the change in the legal, political, religious, artistic, philosophic, in short idealogical institutions ; with reference to these men fight out this battle as a revolution conscious of their opposing interests. This conflict takes the form of a class struggle.”

Hence the truth of Engels’ statement. Economically, capitalism has evolved ; politically it has been created. Ideas play an immediately prominent part in political revolutions, but they are themselves the products of previous conditions mainly economic. To our critic, however, ideas cause, or create, but are not themselves caused ! He calls them creative, and is extremely unwilling to look behind ideas at all lest he should discover them to be determined by social and economic conditions.

It is such an elementary truth that ideas are secondary to material change in the advance of the social organism that it requires all man’s insufferable conceit about his intellect to blind him to its recognition.

Our correspondent fails to give any argument in favour of Idealism, and his “defiance” and mere assertion are in no sense contributions to the discussion. Obviously, before mind could exist the material and forces which form it must have existed. Ideas, further, require the existence of brains, and are generated in the brain by experience, impressions, or sensations; racial or personal. They are the reasserted reflexes of first- and second hand experience, directed to more or less useful ends by the interests, wants and environment of the individual.

The mind, then, is a reflector—one with a highly developed and useful power of focussing and accumulating its reflections—but still a reflector in essence. This, however, is far noni minimising the historic and social role of the products of the mind, and the importance of this role, secondary to material conditions though it is, is fully realised by scientific Socialism. Just as capitalist political and legal society is the product of the now dominant class, so will the establishment of Socialism be the work of the proletariat imbued with the Socialist idea. Now, the working class, as such, is a product of capitalism. Its interests, ideas, and aspirations, are the consequences of economic pressure and capitalist environment. Indeed, if it were not for economic development within the present system, Socialism itself would be neither necessary nor possible. It would not even be thinkable. But as it is, the direct effects of economic pressure and the material environment are caught up, reflected, and passed on by the mind, quickening the movement and propagating the idea among the workers.

Consequently ideas are the revivifying force of the working class movement, but only so long as the connection with material conditions is clear, close, and logical. So soon as this ceases to be the case, the faddist, the crank, the charlatan, or the traitor finds congenial soil, and the movement is proportionately retarded. But no ideas, whether sound or distorted, are original creative forces springing independently out of man’s head. All of them, given the antecedents, can be traced to earlier material causes. In short, ideas are not gods, though gods are ideas. They are social products.

Among the capitalist class the propaganda of revolutionary Socialism is utterly useless. Why? Precisely because (pace Mr. Lamb) “the final causes are not to be found in men’s brains,” and because ideas are secondary to the influence of the material environment. That is why we are a class party. That is why Socialism spreads amongst the workers, and propaganda among them is effective, adding definiteness and intensity to the movement.

Obviously it is by no means absurd, according to the determinist position, to strive to educate the proletariat to class-consciousness. But the fact of it being so utterly hopeless to convert the capitalist class to Socialism is the reductio ad absurdum of the belief in ideas as creative forces or prime causes of social change.

It is difficult to take quite seriously a correspondent who states, in these days of scientific theory, that a theory “based on logical deduction from present-day phenomena” is therefore not scientific !

Science, as Engels shows, is essentially deduced from stubborn facts in contradistinction to metaphysical philosophy, which vainly endeavoured to construct a complete system of knowledge from a few introspectively obtained principles, ranging from the “I think, therefore I am ” of Descartes to the gibberish of Professor Teufelsdroch of God-knows-where.

Its utter failure is the bankruptcy of Idealism, just as the rise of modern inductive science is the demonstration of the fact that the idea, however fantastic, is but the more or less distorted reflex of the real world. Science, indeed, is directly due, in its modern phase, to economic development, and would be impossible without it. It is under the impulse of the technical necessities of capitalism that the advance of science has been so rapid and so triumphant.

Engels, therefore, in saying that the means of abolishing capitalism 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, is simply saying that the Socialist method must be scientific, not metaphysical. Our correspondent has entirely failed to understand the passage in question.

And the inventions of the 18th century of which our correspondent speaks—do they help him? What called them forth ? What gave them their opportunity ? None of them would have been possible in earlier economic circumstances. Every one of them depended on the active cooperation of society and on a given condition of the material to hand, being otherwise impracticable. All arose from, and were dependent on, economic development every inch of the way. The tools, and the arts of working in the many-materials, wood, leather, stone or metals, had previously to have reached a given degree of perfection. The wheels, pulleys, cylinders, pistons had to be present in utilisable form. A social demand had to exist. And a social market that depended on a certain degree of development of a definite social system had also to be available. All these and other prerequisites were the results of the accumulation of human experience and practice through countless years. The inventor, as well as the conditions around him, was the product of economic evolution and untold past social effort. For countless ages mankind had patiently persevered, following the line of nature’s least resistance to their needs, acted upon by, and re-acting upon, nature, be fore social conditions were ripe for thebeginnings of the machine age. And then, the inventions were called forth by the necessities of a particular stage of industry. Once power-driven machines were made possible by the state of one branch of industry they became theoretically possible in. all, and absolutely essential in many. So the problems, narrowed down to definite points by industrial advance, were clearly set down for solution by economic development itself.

So true is this that at a particular period the same thing will be hit upon in several widely distant centres at, the same time. This continually occurs, both in industry and with its hand-maiden science.

Not one of the inventions was the result of one man’s labour. All were the results of many minor improvements. Indeed, the “great man” theory has been exploded by Herbert Spencer, and the inventor, like the genius in other spheres, is the product of his age.

It was the exhaustion of the wood supply in the forests of the South of England, together with the pressing need for iron, that directed men’s energies to the utilisation of coal for smelting ; a process that but slowly approached perfection with accumulated practical experience.

One need, indeed, go no further than the first volume of “Capital” for a masterly expression of this fact.

After pointing out how manufacture (in the old sense) produced the machinery by means of which modern industry abolished the handicraft and manufacturing systems in those spheres of production that it first seized upon. Marx says :

“A radical change in the mode of production in one sphere of industry involves a similar cnange in other spheres. This happens at fast in such branches as are connected together by being separate phases of a process, and yet are isolated by the social division of labour, in such a way that each of them produces an independent commodity. Thus spinning by machinery made weaving by machinery a necessity, and both together made the mechanical and chemical revolution that took place in bleaching, printing, and dyeing, imperative. So, too, on the other hand, the revolution in cotton spinning called forth the invention of the gin, for separating the seeds from the fibre ; it was only by means of this invention that the production of cotton became possible on the enormous scale at present required, but more especially, the revolution in the modes of production of industry and agriculture made necessary a revolution in the means of communication and of transport.”

The huge masses to be worked demanded huge mechanical instruments for the operation, and power capable of moving them. This, as Marx further shows, led to the invention of the slide rest, a means that was essentially required to produce the straight lines, cylinders, and spheres needed in the construction of the steam engine.

Finally, machinery itself could not be introduced before a certain stage of economic development, because it required for its effective use that a given stage of the social division of labour be already reached. So the classic instances of man’s power of invention are but further proofs of the dependence of man’s ideas upon economic development.

The materialist conception of history is, indeed, an integral part of the Socialist philosophy ; and there is no consistent way of escape from acceptance of the whole when the truth of one of its phases is recognised. Nature—all knowledge, is essentially one. All phenomena, mental and physical, are in the domain of science, and intimately woven together in the universal network of cause and effect. Human brain work, important though it be, is but a email part of nature, and it is still true that the whole is greater than the part.

Industrial processes evolve along lines of least resistance pressed hard by human requirements. With this evolution the internals of society outgrow the social edifice which the ruling class have erected during their run of power. It is the workers who are most affected by this. Their ideas change, and acquire definite form and purpose. The socio-political change begins to show itself, as it were, as a smouldering of ideas. It bursts into light. The flame spreads because of the abundance of combustible material around it. It gathers strength and propagates ever more quickly by the increase of its own internal heat. The rigid structure that would enclose and smother it is at .last burst asunder, and the great change is a thing accomplished.

So onr work in the propaganda of Socialism is not only necessary—it is inevitable. And whether the historic mission of the working class be fulfilled sooner or later depends, to a great degree, on the intensity, completeness, and scientific nature of that propaganda.

F. C. W.

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